ORONO, Maine — Maine’s first-in-the-nation mail-in prescription drug disposal program, launched in 2007, has been funded for another two years and plans to expand its presence and impact significantly.
The program aims to protect public health and the environment by safely disposing of unused prescription drugs.
Prepaid, tamper-resistant envelopes available at drugstores, medical offices, community agencies and other sites around the state allow consumers to pack up their unneeded medications — confidentially and at no charge — and mail the drugs away to be destroyed.
“If you flush medications down the toilet or discard them in the trash, they will find their way back into our water supply or our ground soil,” said Len Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on Aging, where the program is managed. “And when drugs are stockpiled in people’s homes, they become a danger to children and older adults who may accidentally ingest them.”
Additionally, Kaye said, some medications, such as painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs, have a high potential for abuse and may be stolen for illicit use and street sales.
In 2007, the Safe Medicine Disposal for ME program received startup funding through a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, more than 1,500 pounds of unused and unwanted medicines have been mailed by 3,300 Maine households to the Westbrook office of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. Painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and cardiac drugs make up about 25 percent of the returns, Kaye said.
The medications are stored securely at the MDEA site until they are incinerated.
For the next two years, the program will operate with $150,000 from the Fund for Healthy Maine, a public health fund fed by the 1999 settlement between states and the tobacco industry.
In the coming weeks and months, 20,000 prepaid mailers will be distributed to more than 100 drugstores and other sites throughout the state. Each envelope will include instructions for safely packaging and mailing away unwanted medications — pills, patches, aerosols and liquids. An optional survey will help program officials understand where the medicines are coming from and why they were not used.
It is important to understand why prescription drugs accumulate in people’s homes, Kaye said. Many people discontinue their medications because of allergic reactions or other complications. Strong pain medications may not be needed if discomfort is not severe. In other cases, people die and family members must dispose of unused medicines, he said.
Bangor pharmacist Bill Miller said it is clear that doctors too often prescribe large quantities of medications when a smaller quantity would be more appropriate. Many of the medications returned so far come from 90-day supplies of drugs that patients may be allergic to or that are ineffective, he said. Hospice patients who die ac-count for many other drug returns.
“In many cases it would be more appropriate for a physician to write a 10-day supply,” Miller said. “It’s a sin, the amount of drugs that get thrown out.”
Kaye said the program has not been active long enough to measure its effectiveness at reducing crime, overdoses, and the level of medications and metabolites found in Maine’s water bodies and the creatures who live there.
The Safe Medicine Disposal for ME program was formed in partnership with the Maine Department of Public Safety, state and federal drug enforcement agencies, the state Department of Health and Human Services, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Postal Service.