Over much of the past year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and local law enforcement agencies have been carrying out the largest offensive against pill mills Texas has ever seen. Dubbed "Operation King of the Pill," the effort involves dozens of officers swarming medical offices suspected of illegally distributing addictive prescription drugs.
According to a November report in the Houston Chronicle, the operation has put several pharmacies out of business, resulted in the suspension of more than two dozen federal licenses for dispensing controlled substances, and led to the seizure of about $500,000 and a luxury vehicle.
There's no indication that the Texas Medical Board has been involved in any of these raids; their investigators merely check up on doctors associated with the clinics after the fact to determine whether there is grounds for disciplinary action. (Per agency spokeswoman Leigh Hopper: "TMB investigators were present, on the ground, at all of the Houston raids. Considerable resources have been poured into that initiative.") But at least some TMB investigators feel their jobs are putting them in harm's way.
The TMB has a proposal to put their minds at ease. The board is considering a measure that would allow its investigators to carry concealed weapons as they go about their day-to-day business.
First, though, the agency wants to know if it's legal. Last week, TMB executive director Mari Robinson submitted a request to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott seeking his opinion on the matter. In her letter seeking the opinion, Robinson notes that representatives from the DEA and Harris County DA's office testified at a June meeting of the TMB about finding weapons in pill mill clinics, including one in which a shotgun was mounted behind the reception counter.
"The potential for violence against TMB investigators is also present because many 'patients' are buying drugs to re-sell them on the street, a criminal activity that increases the likelihood these people will be carrying cash, contraband, and weapons," she writes.
State law allows TMB to designate investigators as peace officers but explicitly states that investigators so designated "may not carry a firearm or exercise the powers of arrest."
But TMB's investigators are not commissioned as peace officers, nor does the agency has any intention of doing so, Robinson writes. So the question -- one the law does not explicitly address -- is whether those who have concealed handgun permits can carry their weapons while on the job.
The other question is whether allowing its employees to carry weapons opens the agency up to lawsuits if an investigator should choose to use the weapon in the line of duty. The TMB thinks not.
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I've asked TMB spokeswoman Leigh Hopper for some more background, but for now it seems that the TMB will sit on the proposal until it receives a ruling from Abbott's office, which typically takes a few months. As for what that decision will be, we'll just note that Abbott has a borderline obsessive love of firearms.
Update at 1:31 p.m.: Hopper has this to add:
The idea of state agency investigators carrying weapons is not unheard of - I understand that pharmacy board investigators are able to do this (but whether it's one of them or all I do not know.)
The TMB, pharmacy board, DEA, county DAs, etc have all worked together to shut down pill mills. In addition to shutting down illegally operated pharmacies, which is one piece of the problem, the Board has suspended licenses of docs they believe are just churning out prescriptions not for any medical need.
Last month, the TMB announced it had suspended or restricted the 21 licenses as a result of the crackdown.