[Noozhawk’s note: This article is part of Day 11 in Noozhawk’s 12-day, six-week special investigative series, Prescription for Abuse. Related links are below.]

Over the last six weeks, Noozhawk has been exploring Santa Barbara County’s rapidly growing problem with the misuse and abuse of prescription medications. Among the challenges our series has exposed is how easy it is to obtain the drugs.

Local statistics closely track national trends. According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use & Health, more than 70 percent of people who abused prescription painkillers reported getting them from friends or relatives.

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So what do you do if you want to properly dispose of expired or unused prescription medications? It’s not the easiest thing to do here.

Only the Sheriff’s Department, through its Operation Medicine Cabinet, provides one-stop drug disposal, 24/7. And even then, the department has just nine drop-off boxes scattered at substations throughout the county’s 2,000 square miles.

The Sheriff’s Department launched Operation Medicine Cabinet with the county Public Works Department’s Resource Recovery and Waste Management Division in 2009 to address four problem areas: youth abuse, accidental child ingestion, improper or accidental use by adults, and pollution of water supplies.

Federal laws state that narcotics can only be possessed by the person to whom they’re prescribed or turned into law enforcement personnel for destruction, which is why pharmacies and hazardous waste facilities cannot take unused or unwanted medications that are controlled substances, sheriff’s Sgt. Brad McVay told Noozhawk.

“Other places like courts aren’t monitored at night, so there’s too big of a chance someone could, even though they’re big metal boxes, cut off the stand and take the whole thing, or cut a hole in the side,” McVay said.

The drop boxes, which were paid for by the county Waste Management Division, take any and all kinds of drugs.

“The main reason we do it is because of the abuse, especially with teens, and it’s the fourth-leading cause of death among infants — getting into medication around the house,” McVay said. “Seniors constantly overdose accidentally because they can’t remember which drugs to take or have old medications that don’t mix with the new one.”

People with serious, chronic health issues acquire a huge amount of drugs and health-care practitioners don’t take any of it back, he added.

“We want to get all that stuff off the shelves,” McVay said. “If it’s sitting in the bathroom, there’s too big of a chance of abuse or being stolen, so it’s our best interest to get it out of there.”

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The program’s only costs are work hours when deputies empty the boxes, store the drugs with other seized property from criminal investigations, and escort it all down to Long Beach for incineration at the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility.

There’s no additional cost for adding the prescription drugs to the other property being destroyed four times a year at the privately contracted Long Beach facility, which incinerates about 17,000 pounds of narcotics a month for law enforcement agencies from throughout Southern California. The environmentally contained facility generates electricity and turns the ash residue into road base.

“As long as they let us mix medication with the illicit stuff we seize, it shouldn’t be a problem,” McVay said of the prospects for continued use of the Long Beach operation.

“We destroy about 500 pounds of drugs a month if not more,” he said. “If we have to start paying for the destruction, we couldn’t afford it.”

Although it’s not the purpose of the drop boxes, the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t care if people want to dispose of illegal drugs, too, since they’re all going to be destroyed in the same place, McVay said.

Many cities in the county — including Carpinteria and Goleta — have drop-off boxes since they contract for law enforcement services with the Sheriff’s Department, but municipal police departments don’t participate in the program. If they wanted to, however, the Sheriff’s Department would try to help.

“If they came to me and said, ‘Hey, we want to do this,’ I would make it happen,” McVay said.

The Santa Barbara Police Department has no drop box, but does accept prescription medications to be destroyed, police Capt. Alex Altavilla told Noozhawk.

There were two steel drop boxes installed in the early 1990s for that purpose — one by the Franklin Neighborhood Center, 1136 E. Montecito St., and the other by the former St. Francis Medical Center on East Micheltorena Street — but they are no longer in use. Installing a box by the police station, at 215 E. Figueroa St., hasn’t been brought up for discussion since people can bring their drugs directly into the lobby, Altavilla said.

“It’s probably safer for the public and maybe our employees because they’re allowed to go ahead and inventory it right there in front of you,” he said.

Like the Sheriff’s Department, Santa Barbara police store seized property and transport it to a disposal site once there’s a sizable amount.

“We get probably one or two a week,” Altavilla said. “It’s not a really frequent thing because there are so many other options to drop that stuff off.”

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Sheriff’s Department drop boxes can be found at the following locations:

Hundreds of prescription medication containers were pulled out of a Sheriff's Department Operation Medicine Cabinet drop box during a recent collection.

Hundreds of prescription medication containers were pulled out of a Sheriff’s Department Operation Medicine Cabinet drop box during a recent collection. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

» Carpinteria: 5775 Carpinteria Ave. (in the lobby)

» 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

» New Cuyama: 215 Newsome St.

The boxes accept drugs from households, but not medical professionals.

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.

As a result of budget cuts, McVay is all that’s left of the Sheriff’s Department’s Community Services Bureau, which runs Operation Medicine Cabinet, so the program will likely change supervisors soon.

“We just need to make sure it stays,” he said. “It’s just a matter of who manages it.”

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Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.