Pharmacy Wars

The Ontario Government’s war on drugs is entering a new and more dangerous phase that is bringing increasing violence to the most unexpected of places: the province’s pharmacies. One normally thinks of pharmacies as being places of peace and quietude. However, in April, 2013, a Sault Ste. Marie pharmacy worker was doused with gasoline by a man attempting to rob the pharmacy. Metro News published an article in July, 2013, entitled, “Recent spike in armed robberies alarms Ontario pharmacists” and stated that the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association (OPA) had observed that “calls from members about robberies have become more frequent across the province over the past two years.” One need only search the internet for “pharmacy robbery” to gauge the extent of recent crimes.

How has this situation come about? It will come as no surprise to the readers of that a new government law is at the root of the problem: The Narcotics Safety and Awareness Act of 2010. The law’s main goal is to make it very difficult for people to purchase quantities of narcotic drugs beyond certain government-mandated limits. Before the law, people could peacefully obtain large doses of whatever drugs they wanted by visiting more than one doctor and more than one pharmacy (i.e., “double-doctoring”). Patients were free to satisfy their drug demands and violence was kept to a minimum. Pharmacists were certainly not worried about being doused with gasoline and burned to death.

But all that changed with the passing of the Narco Act. The Act has led to the creation of a state-run database that tracks prescriptions written for specific monitored drugs. (Surprisingly, non-narcotic drugs such as hormone therapy drugs are also tracked.) Whenever a pharmacist processes a prescription for a monitored drug, the pharmacist is mandated by law to send the personal and medical details of the patient and the prescription to the database. Once in the database, the information is mined for regulatory violations. The database has the ability to generate “real-time alerts” if an individual is found to be a recipient of medication above government limits. An alert could result in the withholding of drugs from specific individuals. Alternatively, the prescribing doctor or pharmacist might be paid a surprise visit by a government health inspector who has legal carte blanche to access any and all private medical records. Doctors or pharmacists found in non-compliance with state dispensing regulations could face up to a $50,000 fine ($200,000 for corporations) or twelve months in prison. Incredibly, the OPA has stated that the Narco Act “is a great first step”. It is unsettling to think what the next steps are going to be.

This new level of technological tracking and enforcement has made it much more difficult for individuals to obtain a desired quantity of drugs. The previous peaceful and legal avenue has now been closed to them. The only avenues left come as no surprise: a black market served by the criminal element and direct pharmacy robbery. The result of all this is increasing crime and violence. The unintended consequences of the Narco Act are the same as the state’s more general war on illegal drugs such as marijuana.

Even though originally well intentioned, the Narco Act is now contributing to increasing violence against pharmacists. Violence in pharmacies also risks collateral damage. Woe to the bystanders who happen to get in the way of drug addicts or criminals intent on getting the drugs they want. If a pharmacist and/or innocent civilian becomes seriously injured or is murdered during a robbery, then the blame will rest solely at the feet of Ontario’s Minister of Health. Isn’t it ironic that the very politician who is charged with keeping citizens “healthy” is directly contributing to greater violence and possibly needless death?

Not only does the Narco Act increase violence, but it also subverts a person’s right to keep his information out of the hands of the state. The government has effectively turned the average pharmacist into a spy for the state medical bureaucracy. It used to be that medical information was subject to doctor-patient confidentiality. The government had no right to learn of the details of dealings between doctors and patients, or pharmacists and customers, unless voluntarily disclosed. Just as the government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, it has no place in the medical offices or pharmacies of the nation. But the Narco Act now throws the right to resist government-mandated spying into the waste bin.

One would think that the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario would have a word to say about this. However, the Privacy Commissioner has jurisdiction only in cases where the law does not mandate forced disclosure of private information. Because the Narco Act mandates such disclosure, the Privacy Commissioner has no legal authority to stop it.

Perhaps section 7 of the federal Charter of Rights can come to rescue. After all, it states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” By forcing pharmacists to act as spies for the state, the government is depriving citizens of liberty and security because:

1) Liberty demands that even though the government can ask for information, any doctor, pharmacist, or individual has the right to refuse to comply with the government’s demands for such information.

2) Security of the person is possible only when the state does not force individuals to divulge information that can be later used arbitrarily against them.

However, history has proven that the Supreme Court of Canada has been the place where traditional freedoms go to die. If a challenge to the Narco Act was ever to reach the SCC (and it is unlikely it ever would), it is not unreasonable to expect that the learned judges would cast their vote in favour of their fellow government friends and the state’s intrusive laws. Birds of a feather flock together.

Finally, the Narco Act has mandated the creation of a large computer database with a commensurate and expensive army of IT personnel, data analysts and medical inspectors. If the government was to instead leave this money in the pockets of citizens, then some drug users might be left with money for drug treatment. Others might enjoy a higher standard of living that might reduce the urge to partake in narcotic drug usage.

The obvious question is: Do the benefits of the Narco Act outweigh its cost? As with most government endeavors, it is impossible to tell (though most readers would probably agree that it is extremely unlikely). Perhaps a few drug users might be deprived of legally obtained drugs as per the intent of the Narco Act. But, one thing we already know is that the law puts pharmacists and their customers in harm’s way. We also know that the Narco Act does not come for free and it requires a huge state bureaucracy and electronic database to enforce it. It also strikes fear into the hearts of doctors and pharmacists and turns pharmacists into spies for the state. The law violates the right to keep medical information private.

The solution, of course, is for the Government of Ontario to halt its misguided war on drugs. War means violence and death and this particular war is no different. Government needs to get out of the private lives of individuals and it certainly needs to get out of the health care industry so that it no longer micromanages the affairs of doctors and pharmacists. It is ironic that the Minister of Health has the audacity to claim that the Narco Act aims to “reduce the risk of addiction and death.” It will succeed at neither at great expense to individuals and the moral fabric of society.

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