Prescription drugs

Here’s How To Safely Dump ’Em

Drug abuse and misuse is an issue throughout the country, and local police departments are doing what they can to stop any such problems before they arise. Prescription medication take-back programs run by Tucson-area police departments have collected more than 17 tons of outdated and unneeded pills and medicines in the last eight years, and12,400 pounds in Oro Valley alone.

Monday kicked off Safe Use and Disposal of Medications Awareness Week, as designated earlier in the month by Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath and the Town Council. Along with spreading awareness, the week recognizes the work of local police departments and their involvement with Dispose A Med programs. 

The Oro Valley Police Department and Marana Police Department have experienced great success with their programs. OVPD holds disposal events once a month, and MPD holds one every other month. 

“It is a little scary and a little exciting at the same time,” said MPD Coordinator for Dispose A Med and Community Resources Officer David Danielson. “When we started, we collected a total of 160 pounds that year, and now we average at about 170 pounds per event.” 

People change medication, decide not to take the full dose or do not like the medication they were given, leaving harmful and potentially addictive substances laying around their homes. This can lead to accidental ingestion by children, or deliberate abuse by friends and family members. The programs provide the community with a safe place to anonymously dispose of unwanted medication.

From a police perspective, Danielson said the most important outcome is protecting the community 

“We want to protect kids that might be curious, or family members that might abuse just out of access, so we want to get these medications out of reach,” he said.

The police departments are not alone in their collective mission to rid the streets (and medicine cabinets) of potentially lethal prescription medication. Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center Director Keith Boesen, an active board member for Pima County Dispose A Med programs, said the center has always worked with police departments from across the region on its programs.

“We wanted to see what we could do to get medications out of homes to prevent abuse and misuse and to keep them out of the environment,” Boesen said. “We don’t often have strangers walking into our homes, but friends and family might poke around a little too much and see potential for monetary gain or abuse.”

The bottom line is that old medications aren’t doing any good sitting in a medicine cabinet, and could potentially cause harm. There are many different ways that unwanted medicines end up in people’s homes, and this is partially due to the ways in which medications are distributed in the first place, Boesen said.

“The pharmaceutical industry in this country is a one-way system,” he said. “Your doctor prescribes medication, the pharmacist fills it for you, and then the expectation is that you will take that home and take every last pill. We know that this doesn’t always happen.”

Pharmacists are legally not allowed to accept any medications back from patients. Only police are able to legally accept specifically narcotics, which necessitates cooperation with the local police departments. 

“We truly don’t use this to capture people,” Danielson said. “We see on social media sometimes people are scared of getting caught, but that is not our goal at all.”

Dispose A Med events remain completely anonymous and any pill, liquid medication or drug is accepted, no questions asked. There are endless reasons why community members end up with an unwanted medication, and the most important thing, according to Danielson, is just getting these medications collected.

The distribution of medications is changing with the invention of new technologies and companies, such as mail-order pharmacies. When medications are ordered through a mail service, it can be hard to stop, said OVPD Sgt. Amy Graham.

“They ship three months at a time, and they keep coming,” Graham said. “With all of the other insurance copays people are paying, they might not notice one more $10 charge on their credit card bill for a medication that they don’t take any more.”

This can cause a huge build up of medications people intended to use but forgot, or they didn’t know how to cancel the prescription. Patients can also end up with a large amount of pills when they are over prescribed, Graham said.

“If you have just had surgery and you know that you are only going to take the strong pain medication for a couple of days, then tell your doctor to bring down the limit,” Graham said. “Don’t let them give you the 30-day prescription. They can prescribe you just what you need.”

Graham stressed that the key to stopping these kinds of issues is education starting at a young age. OVPD has eight school resource officers, five of whom teach in high schools in the area. There is also information provided to attendees of the Dispose A Med events.  

“Our departments work to get information from the police to the public,” Graham said. “Because of these programs, people now are much more cautious of what they throw in the trash.”

Tirion Morris is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.

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