Throwing away unused prescription drugs can help prevent abuse and accidental poisoning, and state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, wants to create a statewide drug disposal program to make it easier to do.
Jackson has introduced legislation that would require pharmaceutical companies to develop and fund a collection-and-disposal system for prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
“I introduced a bill last year as a test balloon to see if I could get the pharmaceutical industry to come to the table sort of voluntarily, without much success,” said Jackson, who represents Santa Barbara County and western Ventura County.
“So this year, the bill sets some very specific requirements that they take responsibility for disposal of these medications — something they don’t want to do.”
Senate Bill 1014 is modeled after a 2012 Alameda County ordinance that requires drug manufacturers to participate in a “product-stewardship program” to collect and dispose of “unwanted products” from consumers. Trade associations representing drug makers filed suit, arguing that the ordinance — the first of its kind in the United States — unconstitutionally regulates and burdens interstate commerce. A judge sided with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, but his ruling has been appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2009, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department started Operation Medicine Cabinet, a one-stop drug-disposal program that was intended to stem the tide of youth abuse, accidental child ingestion, improper or accidental use by adults, and pollution of water supplies.
According to the Sheriff’s Department, teens abuse prescription or over-the-counter drugs more than almost all other age groups combined. Statistics show that every day, 2,500 children aged 12-17 try a painkiller for the first time, the department says.
Meanwhile, officials say, accidental poisoning from medications is the fourth-most-common cause of death in children under 5 years old, and seniors are at risk of accidentally mixing old medications with new ones.
The Sheriff’s Department has placed eight drop boxes at substations around the county in partnership with the county Public Works Department’s Resource Recovery and Waste Management Division.
“Under current state law, no one can possess narcotics that have not been specifically prescribed to them by a licensed physician,” said Lt. Brad McVay, who manages the program. “This resulted in a consumer being unable to properly destroy or return unused, expired or unwanted narcotics. To compound the problem, most people don’t know what a narcotic is and is not.”
As a result, people would dump medications in the trash or down the drain, which can lead to chemicals getting into the drinking water and the environment, he said.
Operation Medicine Cabinet collects about a ton of medicines every six months, according to the Sheriff’s Department. The boxes are used regularly, but less so once the public education campaign ended in 2011.
Drugs are incinerated at an approved disposal site, which doesn’t charge for the service. A “run” to the site with security can still cost $2,000, however, and if costs go up the program could be discontinued, McVay said.
According to Jackson, California has just 305 drug-disposal sites, a “patchwork” that she says is insufficient. She said she’s also concerned that the locations at law enforcement offices may intimidate some people from dropping off their drugs.
Jackson said disposal programs don’t cost much, and she believes they shouldn’t be paid for by taxpayers as they are now.
The Sheriff’s Department agrees.
“It is unfair that the local taxpayer has to pay for destruction services when the pharmaceutical companies only profit,” McVay said.
“We conduct the service to the community out of need and concern for public safety, however we fully support Ms. Jackson’s efforts,” he said. “Whether law enforcement continues to be the collection point or laws are amended to allow pharmacies to accept the unwanted medications, the pharmaceutical supplier should ultimately be responsible for the cost.”
Nationally, the number of patients treated in emergency rooms for prescription drug overdoses doubled between 2004 and 2008, to 305,885, and death rates have risen astronomically since the late 1990s.
Deaths from prescription painkillers are outnumbering deaths from heroin and cocaine combined, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy recommends proper medication disposal as a key element to preventing future misuse and abuse, including fatal overdoses.
“I’m convinced that the time is now and it’s important that we do this,” Jackson said.
She said she still hopes that pharmaceutical industry leaders will develop a disposal plan voluntarily. If the bill passes, drug manufacturers would be required to design and fund the program with oversight by CalRecycle.
The legislation goes before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on March 26.
“You can be sure the pharmaceutical industry will do everything it can to derail this bill,” Jackson said.
“It’s unfortunate. They make billions and billions of dollars and should step up and take some responsibility for the disposal of their products.”
Sheriff’s Department drug-disposal boxes are open 24/7 at the following locations:
» Carpinteria: 5775 Carpinteria Ave.
» Santa Barbara: 4434 Calle Real
» Goleta: 7042 Marketplace Drive in Camino Real Marketplace
» Isla Vista: 6504 Trigo Road
» Lompoc: 3500 Harris Grade Road
» Buellton: 140 W. Highway 246
» Solvang: 1745 Mission Drive
» Santa Maria: 812-A W. Foster Road
Items that can be dropped off include over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, medication samples, medications for household pets, and medicated lotions or ointments. The Sheriff’s Department asks that medications be kept in their original containers, but personal information be removed.
Among items that are not allowed are needles or other “sharps,” hazardous waste, thermometers, trash, mail, lost and found materials, empty containers, or nonmedicated personal care products like shampoo or perfume.
Another option is Walgreens’ Safe Medication Disposal Program, in which customers can purchase an envelope at a Walgreens pharmacy to mail prescription or over-the-counter drugs to an incinerator facility to be destroyed.