National 'Take Back Day' urges surrender of unneeded prescription drugs

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 12:41 PM

With the abuse of prescription drugs continuing to rise, the Drug Enforcement Administration is for the first time asking people nationwide to turn in their expired, unused and unwanted prescription medicines at more than 4,000 locations on Saturday.

The first national "Take Back Day" aims to collect powerful drugs that are beneficial to patients, but that could easily fall into the wrong hands if left to languish in homes. People will be able to turn in pills, powders and other solid medicines anonymously and without fear of prosecution; authorities will then safely destroy the medications by incinerating them.

A focus of the effort is to get commonly abused drugs out of circulation. Law enforcement and health officials say that prescription drug abuse in the United States is fueled by legally prescribed drugs that abusers obtain from family and friends or steal from medicine cabinets.

Some prescription painkillers - which produce highs similar to heroin use - are among the most popularly abused substances. The drugs have caused addicts to rob stores and burglarize homes in recent years. Such drugs in household medicine cabinets also can be a lure for children and teens.

"This effort symbolizes DEA's commitment to halting the disturbing rise in addiction caused by their misuse and abuse," said Michele M. Leonhart, acting DEA administrator, in a statement. "Working together with our state and local partners, the medical community, anti-drug coalitions, and a concerned public, we will eliminate a major source of abused prescription drugs, and reduce the hazard they pose to our families and communities in a safe, legal, and environmentally sound way."

Also of concern is the commonly held belief that it's acceptable to flush old medicines down the toilet. Officials discourage that practice - unless medications specifically indicate that they can be flushed - because of the public health implications of drugs entering the ecosystem.

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the potential negative effects of drugs reaching the nation's water supply and warns that the only truly effective way to get rid of drugs is to turn them in at a collection center or during a local hazardous-waste collection event.

Capt. Brian Berke, commander of the vice, narcotics and gangs section for the Arlington County Police Department, is overseeing three collection stations in Arlington, all of which are at fire stations. Berke said the process is simple: People can come in with their medicines and place them in a collection box, no questions asked.

"We are not going to make an effort to count anything, there will be no effort to look at any bottles," Berke said. "There will be no effort to check anyone's identification. There will be no investigation at all."

Uniformed officers and DEA officials will be at the sites to protect the locations and to secure the medications. The total amount of drugs at each location will be weighed - so the DEA can get an approximation of the total collected - then the drugs will be taken to a central location and destroyed.

Berke said he is unsure how many people will come to the first collection effort, but he said removing any amount of these medications from circulation is a good thing. Police are seeing more and more "pill-related" cases, and prescription drugs can often be addictive and deadly, he said.

"A majority of prescription drugs that are abused are obtained from family and friends," Berke said. "DEA is making this outlet available for people to clear out their medicine cabinets. We really encourage people to come forward."

On Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., more than 40 collection sites are scheduled throughout the Washington region.

To find a nearby site, go to the DEA's Web site,, where you can search by Zip code or by city and state.

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