Bar Coding Thwarts Illegitimate Drug Use

DECEMBER 01, 2005
Cmdr John Burke

The serialization of prescription drugs is a concept that may come to fruition in the near future in the United States. More than one company is working on providing serial numbers on each unit dose of prescription medication. Each individual pill will not contain its own unique serial number, but, likely, lots of 30 to 60 pills will have the same identifying numbering.

Technology will be needed to combat those who will find a way to remove all or some of the numbers to deter their identification. Like the defaced firearm serial number or the tampered vehicle identification number on a motor vehicle, obliterating markings from these pharmaceuticals will be cause for concern for law enforcement to investigate further.

Technology will also be needed to make the registration of these pills at the pharmacy as quick and easy for pharmacy personnel as possible. The serial numbers will have been registered to wholesalers and then to retail pharmacies as they pass closer to the actual patients. Pharmacists will need to register the serial numbers with the patient they dispense the medication to, which will indicate the number of pills prescribed, date, pharmacy, and prescriber information. This information will go into a database for possible retrieval by a host of entities.

Law enforcement would be only one of the benefactors of this technology. Uniform officers, particularly, are often in the position of recovering pills while in the field, and have no definitive way of determining whether the person in possession is the person legally prescribed the drugs.

Those of us in drug task forces making undercover purchases of prescription drugs on an almost daily basis could use this information to identify the ultimate source of the drugs. When larger purchases occur, sometimes the source is the actual retail pharmacy where the drugs may have been stolen in a burglary or robbery, or may have been diverted by pharmacy personnel.

The technology could also be used to thwart the production and distribution of counterfeit pharmaceuticals—a type of criminal activity that is unfortunately growing around the world. Counterfeiting is not only an incredible profit-making operation, but the opportunity for unsuspecting patient danger and even terrorism in the wrong hands is truly disturbing. Serialized prescription drugs could prevent this danger from occurring or could quickly identify the criminal source.

Many other potential advantages exist for the serialization of prescription drugs, which should include both controlled and non-controlled substances. As companies showcase this technology and compete in the open marketplace, it will be interesting to see how it develops.

I find the idea exciting for all of us who strive to keep our pharmaceutical drugs safe and in the hands of legitimate patients who require legitimate medical care. The potential advantage to law enforcement, health professionals, and pharmaceutical companies is tremendous. I hope that a reasonable and cost-effective method may be developed to implement serialized prescription drugs into the marketplace. Time will tell.

John Burke, director of the Warren County, Ohio, drug task force and retired commander of the Cincinnati Police Pharmaceutical Diversion Squad, is a 32-year veteran of law enforcement. For information, he can be reached by e-mail at, via the Web site, or by phone at 513-336-0070.