It has happened in communities across the state and throughout the country. A drug user hears through the grapevine that a neighbor down the road has OxyContin or some other powerful prescription drug. Sometimes it’s a friend of a friend. Sometimes it’s a relative.
Before long, the drug user gathers the courage to seek out those drugs. Sometimes they wait until the homeowner leaves and burglarize the home. Sometimes they are more brazen.
The best case scenario is the user acquires the drugs without anyone getting hurt. The worst case is that someone dies over a handful of pills that didn’t need to be in the home in the first place.
On Saturday, hundreds of Mainers discarded their outdated or unwanted prescription medications as part of National Take-Back Day, an effort coordinated by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. The goal was to prevent the theft and misuse of prescriptions, particularly painkillers and anti-anxiety medications that have high value on the street.
Area police departments staffed more than 100 locations across Maine. Bangor had three collection areas — two run by the city’s police department and one manned by Deputy Chief Troy Morton of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department.
When Morton first pulled into the parking lot of Cascade Park on Saturday morning, three cars were already waiting and traffic remained steady throughout the day.
“One lady said she had one [prescription] from 1989,” Morton said. “We’ve had a little bit of everything.”
At the Ellsworth Police Department, Chief John Deleo said people began showing up just after 8 a.m., even though the event was scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“It was like a yard sale; people wanted to get there early,” he said.
National Take-Back Day was not an anti-drug event. At the many drop-off sites throughout the state, people could dispose of medications anonymously and with no questions asked. Most who took advantage of the service were elderly.
As Deleo opened bottles of pills and dumped out the contents into giant, rectangular boxes, participants marveled at how easy the process was.
At the Searsport police station a little after noon, Chief Richard LaHaye and Sgt. Steven Saucier helped a woman from Stockton Springs dump a bag full of prescription pills into a box that filled up fast with pounds and pounds of multicolored pills.
According to LaHaye, people stopped by to drop off everything from creams and ointments and tiny nitroglycerine tablets to all kinds of narcotics and even vitamins.
Margaret Miller of Houlton headed to the Houlton Police Department Saturday afternoon to drop off several outdated prescriptions. Miller said she felt it was important as the mother of two preteens to take preventive steps to keep unused prescription drugs out of her home.
Shannon Maxwell of Presque Isle, who is a caregiver for her great-grandmother, who has chronic illnesses, estimated Saturday that her mother takes “at least ten” prescriptions.
She said that she has taken advantage of annual drug take-back programs offered in Aroostook County before. On Saturday, she planned to transport a small shopping bag of unused and expired medications to the Presque Isle Police Department.
“I think this is a great idea,” she said. “I know of several people who have been prescribed a thirty or sixty day supply of medication and they didn’t like the side effects, so they ended up with a bottle of pills sitting around that they didn’t really want. I wish events like this could be held several times a year.”
Back in Bangor, resident Louise Hatch said she has been saving her unused drugs in hopes that a drug drop-off would be held in the area.
“I really hate flushing things down,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to clean out the cabinets.”
Flushing prescription medicine down the toilet has long been a method for disposing pills, but officials say that practice poses a danger to the environment and to wildlife.
Additionally, medications that are taken after their expiration date can cause serious illness or side effects, especially if mixed with other medicines.
Worse still is the trend of people abusing prescriptions for recreational purposes. Maine is one of just 16 states where more people died of drug overdoses than in motor vehicle accidents in 2009 — most by powerful narcotics such as OxyContin.
Many public safety agencies have reported rises in property crimes that can directly be linked to an increase in the abuse of prescription narcotics.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins applauded the efforts of the DEA and local agencies.
“An estimated 40 percent of drugs that are dispensed outside of our nation’s hospitals go unused, generating 200 million pounds of pharmaceutical waste each year,” Collins said in a statement, adding, “Nearly one in five of Maine’s high school seniors say that they have abused prescription drugs. Many of these drugs were found in the medicine cabinets, dresser drawers or trash cans of their unsuspecting parents or grandparents.”
One trend Morton observed in Bangor was the high rate of pill bottles that were nearly full, an indication of the national problem of doctors over-prescribing medications, he said.
“They [patients] take five and they don’t work, and they are switched to something else,” Morton said. Meanwhile, that first prescription remains in the medicine cabinet unused.
Bangor area agencies have participated in a number of local drug collections in partnership with the University of Maine Center on Aging. Most of those events have taken place at community gatherings for senior citizens.
The state also offers a statewide drug mail-back system that allows people to send unwanted medicines through the mail, at no cost to the sender, to a state DEA storage facility for disposal.
“We’re a drop-off site all the time,” said LaHaye in Searsport, showing the envelopes used to send returned drugs to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.
The federal DEA has plans to coordinate another National Take-BackDay next spring.
Deleo in Ellsworth said whatever percentage of drugs was disposed of on Saturday is a percentage that police don’t have to worry about ending up on the street.
“We’re not solving the [state’s] drug problem, but every little bit helps,” he said.
BDN reporters Abigail Curtis, Jen Lynds and Nok-Noi Ricker contributed to this story.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY BRIDGET BROWN
Chief Troy Morton of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department dispenses drugs into containers which were turned in by community members as part of a national prescription drug take-back campaign at Cascade Park in Bangor on Saturday.