It’s not the kind of thing most people want to think about, going into the holidays – the friends and relatives who find this time of year more painful than joyous. Those among us who are wracked with the twin diseases of mental illness and addiction.
Convincing loved ones, especially those who are depressed, to get off drugs is hard, if not impossible. But it ought to be easy to get rid of the prescription drugs that often serve as a gateway to addiction.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Thanks to the typical gridlock in Washington, due in no small part to lobbying from pharmaceutical companies, there is no standard or simple way to safely dispose of prescription opioids – now a staple in household medicine cabinets and one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.
Flushing them is off limits. That could harm aquatic life and contaminate drinking water. Tossing them in the trash is forbidden, too. If you’re going to do that, the Food and Drug Administration recommends mixing the pills with used coffee grounds, putting it all in an empty can and then in the garbage.
Drug take-back programs and facilities exist, but they are few and far between. One reason is a lack of willpower. Another is cost. There are no federal grants to help get such a program up and running.
A bill working its way through Congress would help change that. Introduced by Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the Dispose Responsibly Of your Pills (DROP) Act, would establish a $2.5 million a year grant program to fund the collection of prescription drugs at sites nationwide.
Police departments, pharmacies, drug treatment programs and medical facilities would all be eligible for it. Some of these entities run collection programs now, but for a variety of reasons, say they can’t scale up. A grant program would give them one less excuse.
Something must change. Every day, 44 people die of an opioid overdose. The drugs claim more lives than car crashes and homicide, and kill twice as many people as heroin – although addiction to the former often leads to addiction to the latter. Together, opioids and heroin contribute to 20 percent of the nation’s suicides. In California, someone overdoses every 45 minutes.
And most damning of all, more than half of Americans who abuse opioids get them for free from a friend or relative. With giant bottles of unused Vicodin and Opana sitting in people’s medicine cabinets, parents of teenagers have reason to worry.
Given such statistics, one would think that safely disposing of prescription pills would be easy. One also would think that CVS and Walgreens, the nation's two largest drugstore chains, would take them back for free.
Nope. CVS refuses, citing security issues and “logistical challenges,” including a patchwork of state and local regulations that lay out how medication should be disposed of, if it must be at all. Indeed, last month, the California State Board of Pharmacy approved a draft plan for the state that would make take-back programs voluntary for pharmacies, preempting local mandates.
CVS does sell postage-paid envelopes for $3.99 so customers can mail their unwanted pills to a licensed facility for destruction. Walgreens sells a similar product, also for $3.99. And some independent pharmacies, often with funding from local governments, have found a way to collect unwanted drugs, sometimes at no charge. But if they can make it work, chains should have no excuse.
If Walgreens can spend $17.2 billion to buy Rite-Aid, it can find a way to collect unwanted pills that kill tens of thousands annually, and without charging $4. Both CVS and Walgreens do team with police departments throughout the year and for National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, but it’s not enough.
Congress should support the DROP Act. It’s hardly a cure-all for this opioid epidemic, and $2.5 million is not nearly enough money. But it’s a common sense, bipartisan start.