New police program aims to reduce prescription drug overdoses

EDMONDS — People in Snohomish County are more likely to die from an accidental drug overdose than to die in a car crash.

Local police are joining health and environmental officials in hoping that a new pilot program will reduce the number of drug overdoses, accidental poisonings and prevent more people from becoming hooked on powerful prescription painkillers.

Beginning today, Snohomish County residents can drop off unwanted and unused medications, including prescription narcotics, at 28 police departments.

Secure lock boxes are available at stations across the county to deposit unwanted vitamins, cold medicines, painkillers, inhalers and other medications. People are asked to black out any personal information on the containers but not the name of the medication. They do not have to provide their names, only ZIP codes for research purposes.

The boxes, which are bolted down, will be routinely emptied and the medications will be destroyed by law enforcement.

Parents used to have to worry about their kids pilfering the liquor cabinet but now they have to worry about their children sneaking into their medicine cabinets, Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick said.

“Prescription pills are just as deadly as street drugs,” he said.

Lovick, police chiefs, state and federal lawmakers and health-care providers gathered in Edmonds Monday to launch the service.

The program piggy-backs on efforts by Group Health Cooperative and local Bartell Drugs to safely dispose of unwanted medications.

Those companies have been taking back unused medications from customers. In nearly three years, Group Health has collected 30,000 pounds of unused medications.

“It’s very evident to me people seem to know not to throw the drugs down the drain,” said Dr. Shirley Reitz, associate director of pharmacy clinical services for Group Health.

But the law prevents the pharmacies from taking back prescription narcotics. That’s where the new service from law enforcement comes in. Police are allowed to receive and handle drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, all classified as controlled substances.

“This is not a law enforcement issue. Law enforcement is being forced to take this action because there is a lack of legislation,” said Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force.

Some state lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this year that called for pharmaceutical companies to develop and pay for drug take-back programs. The legislation died but supporters say they will try again. They say the drug companies have a responsibility to provide the service to the public and environment.

“It will take a very small percentage of their profits and invest them in the safety of the citizenry,” state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said Monday.

The drug industry has invested in a take-back program in British Columbia since 1996. The pharmaceutical companies are shouldering the cost of disposing of unused and unwanted medications at a small price, he said.

Opponents of the bill said there’s no solid proof that anyone who becomes addicted to prescription drugs get them from someone else’s medicine cabinet. There’s no guarantee a take-back program will curb the problem, said Marjorie Powell, spokeswoman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Health officials disagree and believe removing unused drugs from homes will curb temptation and prevent accidents.

There are as many teenagers abusing prescription drugs as there are kids abusing marijuana, they said. Three in five teenagers report that painkillers are easy to get from their parents’ medicine cabinet. More than half of prescription drug abusers report that they get the painkillers from family or friends.

“The drug dealer is in your own home,” said John Gahagan, a member of Science and Management of Addiction Foundation.

Last year, the Mukilteo man’s 17-year-old son died of a suspected heroin overdose. Gahagan believes his son began using prescription painkillers a year earlier. Since his son’s death, he has learned from the boy’s friends that medications such as Oxycontin and Vicodin are readily available at schools and often kids are finding the medications in their own homes.

Officials hope the new program not only gives people a place to get rid of their unwanted medications but also educates them about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

“We need them to look at these drugs as a loaded gun,” Slack said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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