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As One Mother Can Attest, Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs a Vital Step in Battle Against Abuse

With most collection kiosks now offline, Santa Barbara County eyes new ordinance that puts responsibility on medication producers

Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Deputy Desiree Thorne empties the prescription drug drop box outside department headquarters at 4436 Calle Real. In the five years it has operated Operation Medicine Cabinet, the Sheriff’s Department has reported receiving 30,000 pounds of unwanted, unused or expired prescription medications. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Deputy Desiree Thorne empties the prescription drug drop box outside department headquarters at 4436 Calle Real. In the five years it has operated Operation Medicine Cabinet, the Sheriff’s Department has reported receiving 30,000 pounds of unwanted, unused or expired prescription medications. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

A Santa Barbara mother whose son died after he and friends experimented with a cocktail of drugs left behind by a dying grandfather knows all too well the price of not properly disposing of prescription medicines.

An autopsy revealed that the 19-year-old had therapeutic levels of the drugs in his system, but it was the combination of medicines that killed him in 2007.

“I have always accepted that my son’s decision to experiment with these drugs was, quite frankly, stupid,” Dianne Deras Kirkwood said earlier this year. “He was young and thought he was invincible.

“However, to have life-ending drugs at anyone’s fingertips is a danger.”

Stories like Kirkwood’s are among the reasons behind efforts to safely dispose of unused or unwanted medications. The idea is to keep them from falling into the wrong hands or causing environmental problems due to improper disposal.

The Santa Barbara Count Sheriff’s Department has participated in Operation Medicine Cabinet with drop-off boxes at several substations around the county.

“Unfortunately, the need is much greater than the current capacity of our current program,” Susan Klein-Rothschild, deputy director of the county Public Health Department, said during an Oct. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Recent changes to Drug Enforcement Administration regulations include allowing pharmacies to become collection sites, she added.

“And that gives many more opportunities for collection since, under the DEA rules, some of our current sheriff’s substations will no longer be able to take the medication,” Klein-Rothschild said. “They do not have the adequate facilities to do so. And the number of medications is overwhelming.”

Two weeks after that meeting, the Sheriff’s Department announced the temporary removal of most of its prescription drug collection kiosks from its facilities.

“We are in the process of obtaining new, purpose-built prescription drug collection kiosks that will enhance usability to the public, and improve the ability of our personnel to safely operate the program,” sheriff’s officials said in a news release.

One Operation Medicine Cabinet kiosk is remaining. That kiosk — at Sheriff’s Department headquarters at 4434 Calle Real in Santa Barbara — is used most frequently, officials said.

The Sheriff’s Department reported receiving 30,000 pounds of unwanted prescription medications in the five years Operation Medicine Cabinet has operated.

The disposed medications are taken, under armed escort, to an incinerator in Long Beach, authorities said, adding that the cost is paid out of the department’s budget.

Noozhawk has reported previously that the Long Beach facility incinerates about 17,000 pounds of narcotics a month for Southern California law enforcement agencies. The environmentally contained incinerator generates electricity and turns the ash residue into road base.

The program accepts over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, medication samples, medications for household pets, medicated lotions or ointments, and even illegal drugs. Needles or other “sharps,” hazardous waste or nonmedicated personal care products like shampoo or perfume are not allowed.

In addition to the ongoing drug-collection program, several agencies regularly participate in the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. During the most recent event, held Sept. 27, more than 3,800 federal, state and local agencies took in more than 702,365 pounds of unused, expired or unwanted drugs at more than 5,000 collection sites across the United States.

Twice a year since 2010,  the DEA has simultaneously held the take-back initiative to provide a convenient and safe option to dispose of the drugs.

Overall, DEA officials said the 10 events held since 2010 have removed a total of 5.53 million pounds (2,762 tons) of medications from circulation, Jack Riley, acting deputy administrator of the DEA, told a congressional subcommittee earlier this month.

In addition to keeping the drugs from falling into the wrong hands, safe disposal programs keep the medications from being flushed in toilets and ending up negatively affecting the environment.

“A recent study shows that 80 percent of U.S. streams contain small amounts of pharmaceuticals,” the City of Santa Barbara website advises residents. “Sewage systems cannot remove these substances from water that is then released into lakes, rivers, or oceans, affecting fish and other aquatic animals.

“Very small amounts of medicine have even been found in drinking water.”

Santa Barbara County has been exploring following the lead of other counties to create sustainable convenient, safe local drop-off programs, including getting drug producers and pharmacies involved in the process.

At the Oct. 6 meeting, the Board of Supervisors directed staff to bring back early next year a draft of an extended producer responsibility ordinance.

While the new regulation would boost prescription prices — reportedly 1 cent for every $10, according to one estimate — Sheriff Bill Brown said the amount would be insignificant compared to the benefit.

“I think that is a small price to pay for the safety that we can achieve in the community by not having a large amount of unnecessary or no-longer-needed drugs in medicine cabinets, accessible to young people, accessible for accidental ingestion or overdose,” he said.

In a letter to the supervisors, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, urged the county to adopt a local program, noting efforts at the state level have not been successful.

As part of the county’s process to create a new program, staff held stakeholder outreach meetings, which were well-attended, earlier this year. At one of those meetings Kirkwood shared the story of her tragic loss.

She also spoke up during the Oct. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting to ask for action, on behalf of her late son, Daniel.

“I would like to thank you all for making this a public issue,” she said. “I think there needs to be more education and more receptacles ...

“If we have to keep making trips to Long Beach, then that’s what we need to do to save another child.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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