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Colorado’s Pot Plan: Orwellian Surveillance or Sound Law Enforcement?GovernmentBlogPrivacy


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"Spy", via VikaValter, ThinkStock.

“Spy”, via VikaValter, ThinkStock.

Here’s a news item that makes me sit back and scratch my chin: Colorado lawmakers and regulators are creating the nation’s first surveillance system to track the sale of medical marijuana. The state will use video cameras to track pot sales. It’s also considering additional tracking measures including fingerprints of prescription holders and radio frequency chips on pot plants.

The goal is to make sure that pot buyers actually have prescriptions and that customers buy only the prescribed amount.

“It’s akin to the protections that are in place for pharmacies or a wagering line at a horse or dog track,” Matt Cook, director of medical marijuana enforcement for the Colorado Department of Revenue, told the The Denver Post. “You need to maintain the public confidence in what is going on, and the only way to do that is through these systems.”

Hmmm. I have to admit, this puts me over a barrel. Because honestly, I can see both sides. I understand the need to bolster public confidence, but I think that fingerprinting and RFID chips may be a bit extreme.

My immediate response is skepticism. You see, I like my privacy. I simply don’t like the thought of cameras tracking me as I buy stuff. Nor do I like the idea of a state-run system that links my personal information and my purchasing history together in the same database. Pharmacies do this now. But we should seriously consider how to protect privacy before we go expanding such tracking willy-nilly, especially when it’s done by the state.

And I really don’t like systems that record the fingerprints of innocent people. Normally, fingerprints are taken from people suspected of breaking the law. And since it’s legal to buy medical marijuana in Colorado, gathering such data teeters dangerously in the direction of state-sponsored spying.

On the other hand …

I am not naïve. Having served as a state law enforcement official for many years, I have a dim view of people who break the law. From what I hear about Colorado (which was lovingly referred to as the ‘shrooming capital of the western world’ when I went to college – albeit some 40 years ago), a pot prescription is about as difficult to come by as a bag of dog food. For every cancer patient who depends on marijuana to get through the day, there may be three healthy people just looking to smoke up.

Colorado’s leaders also are onto something more nefarious. They suspect – and I suspect they’re right – that some people are using the same prescription at multiple dispensaries a day, buying up stockpiles of pot to sell illegally.

That’s a problem. And as Cook points out, it threatens the legitimacy of a controversial state law that provides relief for people struggling with pain and disease.

Taking all this into account, I urge Colorado’s pot regulators: Proceed with caution. Maybe the state does need some point-of-sale security measures to make sure that pot buyers aren’t abusing the system.

But the privacy danger here is real. Fingerprinting prescription holders could lead to unforeseen privacy incursions in the future, especially if the law legalizing medical marijuana is ever repealed. Affixing radio frequency chips onto each pot plant sets the state up for an ongoing wild goose chase since the chips are easy to find and remove. Perhaps more important, using technology to physically track citizens’ belongings in the privacy of their own homes crosses the line from responsible law enforcement into Orwellian surveillance state.

Finding the right balance between privacy, practicality and law enforcement is often difficult. Let’s hope Colorado gets it right.

Originally posted at Credit.com.