Soapbox

California takes a big step back on drug safety

Leftover prescription drugs are dumped into packing containers for safe disposal at the Placer County Hazardous Waste Disposal Facility in 2008. The state Board of Pharmacy has voted to preempt local ordinances.
Leftover prescription drugs are dumped into packing containers for safe disposal at the Placer County Hazardous Waste Disposal Facility in 2008. The state Board of Pharmacy has voted to preempt local ordinances. Sacramento Bee file

The actions of the California Legislature receive a lot of scrutiny, but there are dozens of state boards and commissions operating in the shadows.

Now and then, they rise to public attention, like the state Board of Pharmacy. Made up of a dozen or so doctors and pharmacists, the board is charged with “protecting and promoting the health and safety of Californians.”

But last month, it overruled local ordinances designed to help residents safely dispose of leftover prescription drugs, a decision with consequences for all Californians.

The booming market in prescriptions for opioid painkillers, including Vicodin and Oxycontin, has left consumers’ medicine cabinets bulging with unwanted and dangerous drugs. Prescription drugs have become the leading cause of overdose deaths, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says more than 80,000 kids are rushed to emergency rooms each year after accidentally taking prescription drugs found in the home. And the high street value of such drugs has led to a flourishing black market.

So what to do with these leftover drugs?

Just flush them, says the Drug Enforcement Administration. We disagree, says the Environmental Protection Agency. Leftover drugs that are flushed have been found to cause disturbing changes in aquatic organisms, warping the sex organs of fish and raising fears of their effect on those who drink the water. Getting the drugs out of our drinking water is difficult and very expensive, and few water agencies even try.

Congress and the Legislature have attempted to address the problem, but have been stymied by the usual gridlock and the very deep pockets of the pharmaceutical industry.

So frustrated local governments have taken the matter into their own hands, creating collection sites at local pharmacies where consumers can drop off unwanted medications in secure steel lockboxes to be hauled away later for proper disposal. Such programs are functioning well in Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo, and more California cities and counties are preparing to follow their model.

Not so fast, the pharmacy board said.

It voted Oct. 29 to preempt local ordinances requiring such programs, instead approving a draft plan for a statewide drug take-back that would only be voluntary for pharmacies. Asked where in state law the board had the authority to do that, the board’s counsel just shrugged and said in so many words, “Let’s see what happens.”

So what now?

Board members suggested that some communities host annual events where consumers can bring all their leftover drugs to the local police department. Otherwise, one board member said, residents should just keep flushing them.

In the long and contentious meeting, numerous board members expressed concerns about the inconvenience to pharmacists and the pennies-per-prescription cost to pharmaceutical companies. They lamented the lack of action in Sacramento and Washington.

“Protecting and promoting the health and safety of Californians?” It wasn’t mentioned once.

Tim Goncharoff is an environmental planner in Santa Cruz.

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