There were hundreds of vials of unused morphine once prescribed to a dying patient. A Monroe man dumped off dozens of bottles of an elderly woman's unwanted pain medicine, valued at more than $50,000 on the street.
Left in a medicine cabinet, the unused medications could have been deadly or abused. Flushed down a toilet or thrown away in a landfill, the drugs could have polluted drinking water and wildlife habitat.
Now, the drugs are on their way to a regulated incinerator.
The medications were collected as part of Snohomish County's drug take-back program, a partnership between police and public health officials. The pilot project, started in December, is aimed at removing unused medications from Snohomish County homes.
Residents can drop off medications at lock boxes located at the county's 26 police stations. Participants should black out any personal information on containers but not the name of the medication. They don't need to provide their names, just a ZIP code.
Nearly 600 pounds of medication were collected in the first six months of the program.
“First and foremost, we want people to treat any drug like a loaded gun,” said Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force.
Police worry about the unwanted medications being diverted for illegal sales and contributing to violence. Everett detectives suspect an Everett man was shot to death late last month over a disputed drug deal involving OxyContin, a powerful pain medication.
There also are serious health risks associated with storing unused medications and improper disposal, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.
Statistics show that people in Snohomish County are more likely to die from an accidental drug overdose than in a car crash. The majority of unintentional poisoning deaths are caused by opioids, such as Vicodin.
Parents should rid their homes of unused medications, Goldbaum said. Young children are susceptible to unintentional poisonings, and older kids often begin experimenting with the drugs they find at home. In a recent youth survey, nearly 11 percent of Snohomish County 10th-graders reported using pain relievers to get high in the past month.
“A lot of people start their drug addiction simply because the drugs are there,” Slack said.
Improper disposal also may have serious public health consequences, Goldbaum said. The long-term impact of medicines found in water supplies is unknown at this point.
In the past, people were advised to flush unused medications or to mix them with cat litter and dump them in the garbage.
It's illegal to flush the drugs, and in Snohomish County it's also illegal to dump them in the garbage because drugs are considered hazardous waste, and can't be sent to municipal landfills, health officials said.
Until the take-back program, however, there were limited options.
Fran Uchida was left with hundreds of bottles of her father-in-law's unused medication after he died. She took the nonnarcotic drugs to Bartell Drugs. The rest she crushed with a hammer, put in litter and dumped in the trash.
“Our concern was somebody would get into these pills. We wanted to do the honorable thing, but we were still concerned about putting them in a landfill,” she said.
Now, she can use the take-back program. She is quick to pass along the information to her clients at Five Corners Styling in Edmonds.
A Monroe man who assists the elderly brought a laundry basket full of unused medication to police. The medicines, most of which where strong painkillers, came from an elderly, disabled woman who wasn't using the drugs but had stockpiled them.
“I've seen families annihilated by drugs; I wanted to get these out of her house. She had a big target on her,” he said. “I'm glad the program was there, otherwise what do you do with it?”
The man asked that The Herald not use his name out of concern for his safety and that of other people he assists.
Earlier this week, officials sorted through 15 of 36 boxes full of unused medications in an effort to collect data about what kind of drugs people are dropping off.
About 6 percent were controlled substances, including opiates. Nonnarcotic prescription drugs made up about 74 percent of the collected medications. The remaining drugs were over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, said Jonelle Fenton-Wallace, an environmental health specialist with the Snohomish Health District.
The program piggy-backs on efforts by Group Health Cooperative and local Bartell Drugs to safely dispose of unwanted medications. Group Health collects about 6,700 pounds of unused medicines every two weeks in Washington state, said Ken Leger, a pharmacist and project manager for the company's patient disposal program.
But the law prevents pharmacies from taking back prescription narcotics. That's where the new service from law enforcement comes in. Police are allowed to receive and handle narcotics, said Cheri Grasso, a health and environmental investigator for King County.
Police, public health officials and some lawmakers would like to see the pharmaceutical companies develop and pay for the drug take-back programs. They argue that the companies should be responsible for the life of the product, similar to electronics companies that pay for recycling old televisions and computers.
“This is not a law enforcement issue,” Slack said. “It's a health issue. It doesn't need to be funded by law enforcement.”
For more information about Snohomish County's drug take-back program, call 425-388-3199 or go to www.snoco.org.
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