DEA Initiative Moves Expired Pills To Incinerators

Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in the U.S. Over the weekend, the Drug Enforcement Agency and local law enforcement took action. They sponsored the first prescription drug take-back program, collecting tons of expired and unused medicine.

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Tons of unused and expired medications made their way, this weekend, from medicine cabinets to an incinerator. Federal officials collected the prescription drugs to raise awareness about the damage they can do people and the environment. Reporter Shannon Mullen stopped by a collection site in Massachusetts.

SHANNON MULLEN: Cindy Colbys medicine cabinet has been full of unused or expired prescription pills for years. Over the weekend, she finally cleaned them out and brought them to a collection center Salisbury, Massachusetts, a beach town north of Boston. It was one of thousands police and federal agents set up across the country for anonymous drug disposal.

Ms. CINDY COLBY: (Unintelligible) Adderall, Concerta, then theres some pravastatin, and, you know, back pain stuff, and, you know, do-da.

MULLEN: Colby didnt want to flush the drugs down the toilet, with all the recent studies on the dangers of pharmaceuticals getting into the environment. But her husband Harry says they didnt want them in the house either, posing a different risk.

HARRY COLBY: We have our grandson in and out, thats 13. Thats prime age for looking in the medicine cabinet.

MULLEN: The take-back program is part of a bigger fight against the countrys spiraling scourge of prescription drug abuse. The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, organized the effort with local police. In Salisbury, Police Chief David LEsperance says his officers deal with the collateral crimes addicts commit on a daily basis.

Mr. DAVID LESPERANCE (Police Chief, Salisbury, Massachusetts): You know, high domestic violence, rape, larcenies, robberies. Doesnt matter what economic level youre at this stuff gets a hold of you, its all over, so.

MULLEN: LEsperance lost own son three years ago. The 20-year-old took a lethal combination of prescription painkillers.

Mr. LESPERANCE: he actually lost four other friends to overdoses. He was the fifth one in a very short period of time.

MULLEN: So, this is more than just a professional battle for you.

Mr. LESPERANCE: Yeah, I mean, this is a little personal battle, yeah.

MULLEN: And its a nationwide epidemic. Federal officials cite a 400 percent increase in treatment admissions in the last decade.

Special Agent Steven Derr runs the DEAs New England division. He says limited resources make it tough to fight such a far-reaching problem, but at least the take-back program has measurable results.

Mr. STEVEN DERR (Special Agent, DEA New England Division): This isnt the end all to beat all, but if we can get drug medication out of the medicine cabinet, thats one less opportunity for the drug user. This is just one method that were trying to prevent the abuse of prescription medication.

MULLEN: In just the New England states, police and DEA agents collected more than 22,000 pounds of prescription drugs. Thats over 11 tons they say will be incinerated instead of abused, flushed down toilets or tossed in landfills. The national haul is still being tallied.

Special Agent Derr admits itll add up to only a small percentage of whats out there, but he says the effort got people talking about drug abuse, and taking action to prevent it.

Mr. DERR: Were also hoping that the law will get changed, that therell be a method that you and I will be able to turn our medications back in to our doctor, our pharmacist, and things of that nature.

MULLEN: And you cant do that right now?

Mr. DERR: You cant do that right now.

MULLEN: State and federal laws in the works could change that, and shift the responsibility for drug take-back programs to drug makers.

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MULLEN: At the DEA collection site in Salisbury, Massachusetts, Anne Donovan dropped off her late husbands cancer medications that shes had for two years.

Ms. ANNE DONOVAN: I had them way up in the top of the closet, and I had some of them in the freezer, 'cause I didnt want the kids to get at them.

MULLEN: Donovan has 10 grandchildren. She says she lost her husband before his time and that was hard enough.

For NPR News, Im Shannon Mullen.

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