By MICHAEL WHITNEY
Published June 6, 2012
Drug take-back program will continue for now
SNOHOMISH COUNTY - The countywide effort to make sure unused prescription pills are disposed of properly is safe from ending this year, and more people are using the program.
Snohomish County’s prescription drug take-back program was vulnerable to collapse earlier this year because the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office was unsure it could continue committing the manpower to keep the program running. The sheriff’s office has decided to continue committing the manpower for the program through 2013.
For public health and environmental reasons, proponents call programs like Snohomish County’s critical.
In 2004, accidental overdoses overtook car accidents as the leading cause of accidental deaths in Snohomish County. Similar trends are being seen statewide and nationally.
A broad coalition of public health and law enforcement officials argue the state should mandate pharmaceutical companies to fund prescription drug take-back programs, such as what happens in the Canadian province of British Columbia. In the U.S., the pharmaceutical industry has repeatedly pushed back against the idea.
An attempt to get a bill passed this year in the state Legislature failed as the pharmaceutical industry’s political power stifled the efforts of public health and law enforcement officials.
Instead, Snohomish County taxpayers are paying for the cost of running such a program.
It costs $60,000 to run the program each year. The program is funded through the Snohomish Health District, Snohomish County Solid Waste Division and a grant from the state Department of Ecology. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office provides the labor to pick up and dispose of the drugs.
The take-back program runs under a “fragile alliance,” Snohomish Health District director and health officer Dr. Gary Goldbaum said. If any one partner drops out, the whole program could end.
In 2009, Snohomish County pioneered the state’s first drug take-back program.
The amount of prescription drugs collected continues to grow.
Police departments added green take-back boxes for people to drop off unused pills and illegal drugs. Last year, the county program collected 4,620 pounds of medicine at police departments across the county. So far this year, the program collected more than 2,100 pounds of pills.
The program is on track to beat last year’s collection figures, said Pat Slack, commander of the Snohomish County Regional Drug Task Force.
All Bartell’s stores and Kusler’s in Snohomish offer similar drug take-back boxes, but the stores cannot take controlled prescription opiate drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycontin and Oxycodone. These opiates are among the most heavily abused prescription drugs.
Slack hopes the federal government will adopt measures similar to allow controlled opiates to be dropped off at pharmacies. There are 150 pharmacies in Snohomish County and if people could drop off all of their drugs at one it would make the drug take-back process much easier for people, Slack said.
Changing the rules would go a long way in take-back efforts, Goldbaum said.
The take-back program is “not the silver bullet to stop drug abuse,” but it’s an important step, Slack said.
Accidental prescription drug overdoses has eclipsed the number of deaths from all illegal drugs combined, Goldbaum said.
“These drugs are powerful,” Goldbaum said.
Combating the trend requires a multi-pronged approach, Goldbaum said. Consumers need to be educated on how to properly dispose unused pills, and the medical community must be more judicious about writing prescriptions, Goldbaum said.
Stockpiling unused pills at home poses a safety risk for young people who may think it’s safer to try prescription drugs over illegal drugs, and flushing them down the toilet leads to chemicals entering public waterways through storm water systems.
Goldbaum is among hundreds of officials who support mandating a statewide pharmaceutical industry-funded drug take-back program. It would cost the industry a tiny fraction of what it collects in sales from prescription drugs in this state.
“It’s a moral issue where pharmaceutical companies have an ethical obligation” to make sure their products are used properly and disposed of properly, Goldbaum said.
The failed bill would have capped the cost to pharmaceutical companies at $2.5 million a year, which equals about a couple of pennies per prescription sold in the state. In Washington, pharmaceutical sales total more than $4 billion, said Margaret Shield, a spokeswoman for Take Back Your Meds, a coalition made up of more than 240 law enforcement agencies, health districts, drug stores, environmental groups and local governments.
“We are asking them to include it in their cost of doing business,” Shield said.