D.E.A. to Allow Return of Unused Pills to Pharmacies

SEPT. 8, 2014
Steel boxes made by MedReturn are being used to get prescribed drugs off the streets. Credit Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times
Concerned by rising rates of prescription drug abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced Monday that it would permit consumers to return unused prescription medications like opioid painkillers to pharmacies.
The move is intended to help reduce stockpiles of unneeded medicines in homes, which are often pilfered by teenagers. Under the new regulation, patients and their relatives will also be allowed to mail unused prescription drugs to an authorized collector using packages to be made available at pharmacies and other locations, like libraries and senior centers.
The new regulation, which will go into effect in a month, covers drugs designated as controlled substances. Those include opioid painkillers like OxyContin, stimulants like Adderall and depressants like Ativan.
Until now, these drugs could not legally be returned to pharmacies. The Controlled Substances Act allowed patients only to dispose of the drugs themselves or to surrender them to law enforcement.
“This is big news and long overdue,” said Dr. G. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s baffling that it’s so easy to get a prescription for opioids and yet so difficult to dispose of these drugs safely.”
Injuries and deaths from prescription drug abuse, particularly opioids, have soared in recent years.
More than 70 percent of teenagers say it is easy to get prescription drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, according to a 2014 Partnership for Drug-Free Kids study.
“The sooner we get those unused medications out of the home and medicine cabinets, the better and safer it is for everyone,” said Carmen A. Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
Until now, consumers have had limited options for the disposal of controlled substances. Twice annually, citizens could anonymously return them to police departments during thousands of national “take back” events organized by the D.E.A.
In the past four years, these events have removed from circulation 4.1 million pounds of prescription medications. (The next one is Sept. 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Still, about 3.9 billion prescriptions were filled at pharmacies alone in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“They only removed an infinitesimal fraction of the reservoir of unused drugs that are out there,” said Dr. Nathaniel Katz, an assistant professor of anesthesia at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston who studies opioid abuse. “It’s like trying to eliminate malaria in Africa by killing a dozen mosquitoes.”
Dr. Katz is optimistic that the D.E.A.’s decision could have a powerful impact. Putting drop-off receptacles for controlled substances in pharmacies will mean consumers have year-round access to disposal services.