Nonmedical prescription use at ‘epidemic levels’

Posted Sept. 08, 2010, at 10:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Last year, 179 people died of drug overdoses in Maine — and 92 percent of those cases involved prescription drugs. By comparison, 155 people died in highway crashes.

Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan used those figures Wednesday to highlight the need for a national effort later this month to collect unwanted, unused and expired drugs. In Maine alone, drugs will be collected, no questions asked, at more than 100 locations. Similar collections will also take place in New Hampshire and Vermont on Sept. 25.

Exact locations where people can bring their drugs can be found on the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s website, www.justice.gov/dea/index.htm.

“The nonmedical use of prescription medications is at epidemic levels,” said Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney. Teenagers, often believing that prescription drugs are safer than street drugs, are known to abuse medications, and “the source of those drugs oftentimes is the home medicine cabinet,” McKinney said.

Drugs in people’s medicine cabinets are also the cause of home invasions and burglaries, Jordan said. Break-ins happen even when families are attending funerals, in some cases so thieves can get the drugs of the deceased, Jordan said.

Attorney General Janet Mills called the misuse of prescription drugs the No. 1 cause of crime in Maine today.

“People are killing each other over prescription drugs,” said Mills. “Without drugs in the medicine cabinet, thieves will not target you.”

Besides being a public safety threat, old and unused drugs present an environmental threat when flushed down toilets and pumped into sewage treatment plants, which aren’t equipped to filter out the drug traces. Tiny amounts of discarded drugs, such as antidepressants, birth control pills and over-the-counter pain relievers, also have been found in water at some Maine landfills.

Bangor pharmacist Bill Miller said one reason people walk out of drugstores with excess medications is that they order large quantities to avoid additional co-pays. Miller said Maine pharmacies provide postage-free envelopes in which consumers can mail unused drugs back to state drug enforcement officials, who dispose of it.

Maine was the first state to offer a drug mail-in program, in 2008, public safety officials said. Since then, some police departments in Maine have offered local drug take-backs. But the Sept. 25 effort will be the state’s largest so far.

New Hampshire created an unused prescription drug collection program in 2006 but it has yet to be fully implemented. The program would allow pharmacies, hospitals and nursing homes to collect unopened prescription drugs that have not expired and redistribute them to low-income or elderly patients.

In July, U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., introduced federal legislation that would provide grants to communities to install prescription drug drop-boxes and to hold classes on the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

The legislation was inspired by the success of the Seabrook Police Department, which installed the state’s first prescription drug drop-box a year ago after the town experienced five prescription drug deaths in 14 months. Her bill has the backing of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, though some individual chiefs have expressed skepticism over the idea.

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