Let’s keep left-over pills out of circulation

If you still need convincing that prescription drug abuse among teens is a growing problem, you have only to talk to some of our school resource officers. Not only do teens fail to recognize prescription drug abuse as a path toward illicit drug use, officers tell us, they don’t always consider the pills in their parents’ medicine cabinets to be as deadly as street drugs.

One school resource officer caught a student with 30-milligram Oxycontin tablets. The boy got the pills from his grandfather, who was battling cancer. The teen was selling them for $10 each.

Another student was selling Vicodin he got from his mother, who had surgery.

And yet another student fried his brain on Oxycontin he got from his father, who suffered a disabling back injury.

Unfortunately, some of the useful medicines we keep in our cabinets are being misused and abused. Among 12- and 13-year-olds in our state, pharmaceuticals are currently the drug of choice, surpassing alcohol and marijuana. The Washington Health Youth Survey found that 10 percent of 10th graders in Washington had used opiate medicines to get high in the last 30 days. Alarmingly, most of these teens get these drugs from friends or family.

Many steps need to be taken to counteract these problems, including talking with our teens about the hazards of prescription drug abuse, and storing medicines in our home safely to prevent deliberate or accidental abuse. But, until recently, an unaddressed part of the problem is how to dispose of medicines we no longer use.

Our awareness of the impacts of these medicines leaves us in a quandary. Flushing pills down the toilet won’t work because it sends them through wastewater treatment and straight into our waterways. Throwing medicines — especially drugs that kids might want to get high on — into the trash isn’t a good idea either. The drugs could end up in the wrong hands. So what’s the answer?

Legislation introduced this session in Olympia (House Bill 1165/Senate Bill 5279) provides the solution to getting unwanted medicines out of our homes in a way that helps prevent drug diversion and also helps protect our environment. The bill directs pharmaceutical producers to set up and pay for a statewide collection and hazardous waste disposal program for unwanted medications.

This is not a new idea — medicine makers have been operating successful take-back programs in Canada, France, Spain and elsewhere for many years. British Columbia’s program, for example, has been operating since 1996 and is fully paid for by the pharmaceutical industry. The program took back more than 53,000 pounds of unwanted medications in 2007, and it costs less than $300,000 per year.

The large number of unwanted medicines in homes across Washington was demonstrated locally at Everett’s Group Health clinic. As part of a two-year pilot at 25 Group Health locations across the state, secure collection bins were placed in pharmacy lobby areas. With little or no advertising, more than 15,000 pounds of unwanted medications were collected from the 25 sites and disposed of safely.

We can all thank the pharmaceutical industry for providing us with medicines to cure our ills. We should also ask them to take a responsible role in providing a safe way to dispose of medicines we don’t need. This ounce of prevention will be repaid many-fold in the health of our kids, our elders and the environment in which we all live.

Pat Slack is commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force. John Lovick is the Snohomish County sheriff.

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