Mainers in possession of unused and unwanted medications are urged to empty out their medicine cabinets this Saturday and participate in the first-ever national drug take-back effort.

At more than 100 locations across the state, state and federal law enforcement officials will staff secure drop-off sites for both prescription and over-the-counter medications, with no questions asked and no records kept. Click here for a list of Maine sites.

Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, people who wish to get rid of unwanted medications may either deliver them in the original containers — with identifying information obliterated or not — or package them up in unmarked plastic bags. Liquid medications, including intravenous solutions, will not be accepted; neither will injectable drugs, insulin syringes or any kind of needles.

Spearheaded by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency in partnership with state-level law enforcement groups, the effort is aimed primarily at preventing the theft and misuse of prescription drugs such as painkillers and anti-anxiety medications. But many medicines also pose a danger to the environment and to wildlife when they are either flushed down the toilet or thrown into the trash.

In addition, stored medications that are taken after their expiration date can cause serious illness or side effects, especially if mixed with other medicines the patient may not have been using when the drug was originally prescribed.

There are many reasons people don’t take all the medications they are prescribed. Some simply don’t need more than one or two painkillers after minor surgery. Others might develop unpleasant side effects or have an allergic reaction to a drug. Still others die, leaving caretakers to dispose of unused medicines.

While some doctors are in the habit of writing prescriptions for 30-, 60-, or 90-day supplies of medications, and some insurance companies offer incentives for doing so, the MaineCare program for low-income Mainers has restricted certain medications — including popular pain relievers and antidepressants — to a 10-day sup-ply for first-time prescriptions in an effort to cut waste in the publicly funded program.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about drug disposal,” Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said Wednesday. “People know they shouldn’t flush their medicines down the toilet, but they don’t know what else to do with them. So they just hold onto them.”

In the past few years, Ross’ agency has 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 boasts an innovative 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.

“The amount of drugs we’re taking in is incredible, and it isn’t even the tip of the iceberg,” Ross said. The effort in Maine to collect unwanted medicines before they cause problems has drawn national attention to the issue, he said.

Commissioner Anne Jordan of the Maine Department of Public Safety said Maine is one of 16 states where more people died of drug overdoses than in car accidents in 2009.

“We had 174 people die of drug overdoses last year and 155 people die in car accidents,” she said. Jordan said overdose deaths have outstripped motor vehicle fatalities in Maine for the past three years running. The biggest culprit in these deaths is narcotic painkillers such as OxyContin, followed by antidepressants and other psychoactive drugs.

According to Jordan, 70 percent of young adults responding to a recent national survey reported that they obtained the drugs they use illicitly from family members and friends for whom the drugs had been legally prescribed.

“There were 2.3 million prescriptions written in Maine last year. There are only 1.3 million people in the state,” Jordan said. “We’ve got to get a handle on the amount of unused, unwanted and expired medications sitting in medicine cabinets in Maine.”

At a recent one-day collection in Brunswick, Jordan said, residents disposed of enough medications to fill three 55-gallon drums. She said she expects to collect “tens of thousands of pounds” of medications Saturday.

Federal DEA agent Mike Wardrop said the one-day drug take-back has been a challenge to coordinate but that most state, county and local agencies in Maine have been quick to sign on despite the extra demand it will place on their staff and budgets.

Many agencies are authorizing overtime for the event, he said, and some larger agencies will staff collection sites in smaller communities. The drugs will be kept under armed guard overnight and then driven to a special hazardous waste incinerator in another state.

Wardrop said a second national drug take-back will be scheduled sometime next spring.

Sites are planned in communities throughout the state.

In Bangor, people may drop off their unwanted medications at the Bangor Police Department on Main Street, the Airport Mall parking lot on Union Street or the Grotto Cascades Park on State Street. To find other sites, contact local police departments, call the Maine Department of Public Safety during business hours at 626-3800 or visit and click on the “Got Drugs” link.

Mainers unable to participate Saturday may request a free mailing envelope from the Maine Department of Public Safety or pick one up at their local pharmacy.


Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at