It’s fairly common for people with chronic illnesses to carry medicines, and it certainly is legal to do so. But most of us are not aware that there are local laws governing how we are supposed to carry them. Presumably, these laws exit to assure we are not carrying drugs that are illegal or could harm others. If we don’t carry our meds the “right way,” we could wind up in an uncomfortable situation with law enforcement.
To protect ourselves from a misunderstanding with police when carrying medicines, we must:
1. Carry proof of what the medicines are;
2. Prove the medicines have been prescribed to us by a medical professional;
3. Know and follow the different regulations governing the carrying of medicines for each of the states where we live, work, and travel; and
4. Take special care when leaving home with drugs that are on the controlled substance list. The rules for carrying these drugs are quite strict, and carrying these drugs outside of their original container and without the attached prescription, can be a felony crime in some states—even if the medications have been prescribed legally by a doctor.
Making matters worse for people with chronic illnesses, most of us lack the information we need to follow the laws. There is little if any information accessible to the public about the laws involving the carrying of medications. The laws vary from state to state and doctors and pharmacists rarely inform patients about the legal way to carry their medications.
The little-known laws governing the carrying of legal medications
I have asked medical professionals and law enforcement officers if they could explain the laws governing the carrying of legal drugs, and all have been foggy on the details. It appears the government has neglected to educate the public, medical professionals, or even law enforcement officers on our rights and obligations when carrying medications, despite how common it is for people to carry medicines to treat both chronic illnesses and temporary sickness (like a cold or flu).
And yet, the consequences of carrying medications without proof that they are legal can be quite uncomfortable. The police may suspect you of abusing or selling drugs illegally—since they may not be able to identify the difference between legal and illegal drugs. You could be arrested, fined, and even jailed–at least until you come up with proof that your medications are legal.
What are the laws governing the carrying of medications?
The answer depends on the state you are in. Some states require all medications to be carried in their original containers, with prescriptions labels attached. Other states require only controlled substances to be carried in their original prescription containers. Still other states allow medications to be in any container, as long as you can present a script from a medical provider if questioned.
Drugs are also regulated at the federal level through the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (Controlled Substance Act of 1970). But the federal law deals almost exclusively with controlled substances, leaving flexibility for the states to decide how people should carry both controlled and uncontrolled drugs that are legally prescribed to them.
I tried to find out the laws concerning the carrying of medications in New York, where I live, and had a difficult time. I found pages of dense text about drug laws, requiring anyone searching for the legal way to carry their medications to muddle through lots of obscure legal language. Most of the regulations address illegal drugs and very little address how to carry legal medications.
I called my local police precinct, and the police officer I spoke with did not know the details of the New York State laws. Instead of providing the actual details of the laws, the officer provided me with anecdotal advice from her own personal experiences with a young daughter who needs to carry medications (her daughter carries medicines in their original containers). I followed up with my family’s doctor, who was also unclear about the state laws.
It seems the drug laws are weak in protecting people carrying medications to treat their illnesses. The focus of the laws are in catching the “bad guys” using and dealing drugs illegally, with little regard to the innocent people who are unjustly suspected.
How to Carry Medicines
If practical, the way to raise the least suspicion is to carry medicines in their original bottles, with prescription labels attached, and to carry photo identification. Over-the-counter medicines should be carried in their original bottles as well. If you have large bottles, you can ask the pharmacist for a smaller container with the prescription attached that you can put a few doses in. For over-the-counter drugs, you can buy the smallest bottle/packaging to carry with you when you are out of the home.The date of the prescription has no legal consequence, so it does not matter if the script has expired. The expiration is only there for information about the freshness of the medications.
Some of us have 3, 4 or more medicines we need to carry with us. To carry each of these in their original prescription bottles—even if we use smaller bottles—can be cumbersome. It’s much easier to carry a small pill case with one or two doses of several medicines that can be tucked in a front pocket.
When it is not practical to carry the original containers of medications, the next best way to protect yourself if you are confronted by law enforcement is to carry a note from a doctor written on a prescription pad, listing all the prescription and over-the-counter medication you carry.
Keep in mind, though, that it is illegal in some states to carry medicines outside of their original containers, particularly controlled substances. But for many of us carrying medications that are not on the controlled substance list, the convenience may be worth the risk, and likely a doctor’s note is enough proof to satisfy a policeman’s questions.
Know your rights…what to do if you are stopped by police
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution offers protection from illegal searches and seizures. In order to carry out a search of property, a police officer must have either a search warrant, “probable cause,” or your consent. “Probable cause” means that there is evidence for suspicion. In the case of drug searches, “probable cause” can mean that there are drugs in plain sight; more than one witness can corroborate to illegal activity; or an officer sees the exchange of money resembling a drug deal; among other things. A search cannot be done solely on the basis of the color of someone’s skin, their age, or how they dress.
If police approach you with a warrant it is best to allow the search. The police may try to search you without a warrant by claiming “probable cause” or by asking for your consent to a search. You have a right to remain silent and a right to say that you do not consent to a search. If an officer asks to search you and you are not sure if there is probable cause, you can politely ask the officer “Am I under suspicion?” or “Am I being detained against my will? Because if not I’d like to be on my way.” If the answer is “yes,” then it is best to cooperate with the search (Jody S. Lanier, PLLC).” If the answer is “no”, you should be able to leave without being detained. The police are not allowed to use your refusal to be searched as evidence that you may have committed a crime. It is rarely productive to argue or fight with a policeman—that could get you arrested and possibly hurt. If you think you have been unjustly questioned or searched, it is best to put in a complaint afterward.
Cases When Police Can Search with “Reasonable Suspicion” Alone…No Warrant, No “Probable Cause” and No Need for Consent
The law allows police to search some people based on “reasonable suspicion,” which is a lower standard than “probable cause.” Students attending public schools, prisoners in jails, government workers, and people stopped at border crossing or traffic stops can be searched based on “reasonable suspicion.” The definition of “reasonable suspicion” is vague. It is based on whether the facts would lead a “reasonable person” to suspect criminal activity. This belief still needs to be based on facts, rather than feelings or rumors. Reasonable suspicion might include such things as: a supervisor noticing a government worker has bloodshot eyes and trembling hands, which a reasonable person might assume could be caused by the abuse of drugs; or a school security officer noticing a student with symptoms resembling drug use (such as an unsteady walk, trouble speaking, and trouble comprehending).
The “reasonable suspicion” standard makes people with chronic illnesses vulnerable to being suspected of carrying or taking illegal drugs, since there is less proof needed to search someone. It is easy to see how their situations could be confused with illegal drug use—a person could have symptoms of illness or side effects to medications that could be confused with illegal drug use.
Improving Drug Laws to Protect Civil Rights
The drug laws are focused on preventing the illegal selling and abuse of drugs with little regard for the civil rights and medical needs of people who take and carry medications prescribed by their doctors to treat illnesses. Because of the way drugs laws are written and implemented, anyone carrying medications could come under suspicion for criminal activity. Here are some suggestions on how we might improve the drugs laws and their implementation as they relate to people who carry medicines to treat illnesses.
1. The Carrying of medicines alone should not constitute “Probable Cause” of a crime: Simply taking or carrying medications should not constitute “Probable Cause” of a drug crime, since many people take medicines legally for their medical conditions. Other facts should be present suggesting the selling or use of illegal drugs in order to justify a search or an interrogation.
2. Informing the public about their rights and obligations: Most people are not fully aware of their rights and obligations concerning the carrying of medications to treat their illnesses. Information about drug laws, their enforcement, and regulations concerning searches, should be made available in doctors’ offices, pharmacies, police precincts, schools, and government websites.
3. Creating a better interaction between police and the community: Police training should include an understanding that many people carry medications legally to treat illnesses, so they must not assume every person carrying medications is a drug dealer or an illegal drug user. Police should also be made aware that people of all ages and races have chronic illnesses or temporary sicknesses requiring medications.
4. Rethink the drug laws: Ever since the Rockefeller Drug Law was passed over 40 years ago, doubts and concerns have been raised as to their effectiveness in curbing illegal drug use, and on the law’s harm to society. With the drug laws, our prison population went from 330,000 in 1973 to a peak of 2.3 million people in recent years. The United States jails the largest number of citizens of any country in the world, mostly because of its strict drug laws. Nearly half of people in jail are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses (Bureau of Justice Statistics). Despite the widespread incarceration, drug abuse continues to be a problem, and the drug laws have been largely ineffective at curbing illegal drug use and sales. With such harm and lack of effectiveness of these laws, there would appear to be little reason for people with chronic illnesses to put up with the inconvenience and encroachment of their privacy imposed by these laws.
5. Our laws, including drug laws, should include civil rights protections: As with all laws, we must balance the idea of protecting the health and well-being of our citizens with the need to protect our liberties and civil rights. It is unwise to decide that our safety must be protected at all cost. In the case of drug laws, the cost to our civil rights, privacy and freedoms have been great, with relatively little benefit coming out of our current drug laws.
Teens carrying medications
The unintended consequences of the drug laws for people treating chronic illnesses became personal for me last year when my teenage son was stopped twice and questioned about the medicines he carries to treat his migraine episodes and Crohn’s symptoms.
Some population groups are more likely to raise the suspicion of police looking for illegal drugs because of racial and age profiling. Teens and people of color tend to be prime targets of police tasked at enforcing drug laws. Teens are suspected of abusing and/or selling drugs at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Teens also have more restrictions on what they are able to use legally—for instance, they are not allowed to drink alcohol or use tobacco.
People of color have a greater chance of being stopped by police on suspicion of drug crimes, due to what can only be described as racism and unjust bias. According to a Human Rights Watch study carried out between 1980-2007, black and white adults were equally as likely to use or sell illegal drugs, but black adults were 3 to 5 times as likely to be arrested on drug charges than white adults.
Last summer, my teenage son, Aaron was caught in a random police raid at a high school with his migraine medicines tucked in his pocket. Aaron was attending a workshop related to his summer job, hosted in a high school building. The police knew many teens were going to be in the building attending the workshop and surprised the kids with an unannounced search of their belongings. There was no reason or justification given for the raid. They were all told to empty their pockets and bags for inspection. This random and indiscriminant search of students in a high school was likely illegal, violating the fourth amendment of the constitution. Searches cannot take place simply because police suspect all teens of wrongdoing, or because they suspect “someone” of carrying something illegal. Police must prove that they have facts to back up a suspicion that a particular student committed a crime in order to justify a search of that person.
During the raid, the police asked Aaron to empty his pockets, and Aaron complied. Out came Aaron’s small pill box. He was taken aside and questioned about the pills. This was not Aaron’s high school. None of the staff there knew him. Aaron did not know that he had a right to remain silent, and a right to deny consent of the search of his belongings, since the police did not have evidence of “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion” that he was committing a crime.
There is an unfortunate suspicion that any teen carrying medications must be doing something illegal, getting high, or selling drugs to others. The police interrogating Aaron did not consider the possibility that Aaron had an illness requiring him to take medication. Aaron had the burden of convincing the officers that he was carrying legal medication. Luckily, after Aaron argued his case, the police let him go.
A few months after the police raid of the school, Aaron was hit with a migraine episode as he entered the subway station. A worker in the subway booth noticed him taking pills and questioned him—not to see if he needed help, but with the suspicion that he was abusing drugs. Aaron was feeling lousy and had difficulty explaining what the medicine was for, since his vision, speech, and cognitive skills were affected by the migraine. Even in this state, he managed to convince the worker that he was having a migraine episode and that the medicines were prescribed to him for this reason. The worker reluctantly accepted Aaron’s explanation and let him go on the train.
After being confronted twice about his medications, Aaron became reluctant to carry his medication. It was uncomfortable for Aaron to be suspected of criminal activity and to be forced to explain to strangers why he was carrying medications. It isn’t practical for Aaron to carry all his medications in their original containers—as the law in New York State require– since he has several medications, and would rather not carry a clanking bag of bottles with him everywhere he goes. He is a teenage boy, after all. So Aaron continues to carry a small pillbox slipped into his front pocket…but with the added protection of a doctor’s note listing his medications and tucked in his wallet.
The New York Civil Liberties Union published a detailed palm card focusing on the rights of teens if they are stopped by police. While the information is particular to teens in New York City, it is also useful for teens across the country.
Shedding light on the hidden problem
The drug laws are one of several statutes that require people to sacrifice their civil liberties to defend our country from perceived threats. The drug laws are supposed to protect us from exposure to addictive, dangerous drugs; and guard us against criminal behavior from people using and selling these drugs.
After more than 40 years under our current drug laws, our drug laws continue to raise concerns over their affects on our society. The drug laws have been criticized for their lack of effectiveness in curbing the use of drugs, and for the devastating incarceration of an outrageously large portion of our population.
I hope I have shed some light on the less-known problem the drug laws have created for people with chronic illnesses, who cannot carry the medications they need freely, without the threat of questioning, searches and possible arrest by the police.