Many New Jerseyans remember October 29 as the day a freak snowstorm toppled trees, tore down power lines, and left thousands stranded in the cold and the dark. It was also the day the federal Drug Enforcement Agency collected 4.5 tons of prescription drugs at 365 locations statewide, part of a nationwide DEA drug “take back” designed to keep addictive painkillers like Percocet out of a prescription drug pipeline that officials say rivals heroin and cocaine.
Yesterday, the DEA and New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow held a press conference in Newark to announce a permanent version of operation Take Back, called Project Medicine Drop. The police departments of Little Falls, Vineland, and Seaside Heights are piloting the program, and now have metal boxes installed in their headquarters. They resemble mailboxes, and anyone can anonymously drop off unused prescription drugs, 24/7.
The goal is to sweep up drugs languishing in medicine chests that are classified as “controlled dangerous substances” because they can cause addiction, serious illness, or a fatal overdose. But any prescription drug or over-the-counter medicine can be tossed in the box — except liquids and syringe-loaded drugs. Dow said in the next few weeks there will be at least one box in every county where people will dispose of partially used bottles of drugs, just as they now bring half empty cans of paint and old computers to their local recycling center. The drugs are incinerated under law enforcement supervision.
“On October 29, we here at DEA collected over 4.5 tons of surplus medicine from New Jersey homes, and that was during a snowstorm,” said Brian R. Crowell, special agent in charge of the New Jersey DEA.
Crowell explained that the DEA established collection sites throughout the state, typically at a police department, and the collection effort was manned by local police and the agency. The collection was conducted for four hours, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then members of the New Jersey National Guard transported the drugs to an incineration facility.
“It raised the level of awareness that these things are dangerous,” Crowell said. “They are just like a loaded gun in the house. Kids and teenagers know where to look for drugs, they go right to the medicine cabinet.”
Nationwide, 188 tons of drugs were collected that day. “These numbers alone show that we have a definite need for this program,” he added.
Finding a good place to get rid of prescription drugs is tricky. People are urged not to flush them down the toilet, where they eventually get into the water supply, and tossing them in the trash poses the risk that they will be fished out again by an addict or drug trafficker. Right now, only law enforcement agencies can collect prescription drugs that are classified as controlled dangerous substances—but that could change.
Last year Congress passed the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act, giving the attorney general authority to create new disposal venues for prescription drugs. The regulations are now being written by DEA, with input from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other agencies, Crowell said.
Crowell indicated that pharmacies are under consideration as a new drug collection venue.
But Sandra Moore, president of the New Jersey Pharmacist Association, said it remains to be seen if pharmacies can be collection sites for surplus drugs. She said pharmacists are now required by law to safeguard all controlled dangerous substance (CDS) drugs that they dispense. “They must be stored separately. There is detailed paperwork. They have to be locked up,” she explained.
Moore, a hospital pharmacist at the Lourdes Health System, said that in a hospital, the CDS drugs have to be doubled locked. She said some drugs are considered hazardous substances by the EPA, and hospitals contract with companies that specialize in hazardous waste disposal. Dealing with all these issues at the retail pharmacy level would be a challenge, she said.
Thomas R. Calcagni, director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the licensing of doctors and pharmacists, said the magnitude of prescription drug abuse calls for efforts to increase community awareness and to make it easy for individuals to safely dispose of drugs. He cited reports that 12 million Americans abused prescription drugs in the past year, adding that “prescription drug abuse now kills more people than cocaine and heroin combined.”
Dr. Steven M. Marcus, director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, said his organization received 57,000 calls last year reporting exposure to poison and other dangerous substances, and “we had 54 deaths last year, and I would say a third of them were unintentional deaths where prescription drugs were the cause.” He said an unknown number of deaths may be caused by prescription drugs, but the drugs are not identified as the cause of death.