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On Saturday, April 28, more than 5,000 sites nationwide, and here in Maine, will participate in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.  State and local law enforcement agencies like the Bangor and Portland Police Departments, in partnership with the DEA and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, will collect unused, unneeded or expired prescription drugs from the public to prevent drug abuse and theft. 

It is estimated that 40 percent of prescription drugs – particularly pain-killers, antibiotics, and cardiovascular medicine – that are prescribed outside of hospitals go unused every year.  Left in the home, they present a serious health and safety hazard.  Flushed down the drain, they contaminate our waters and our wildlife.  In 2002, a U.S. Geological Survey study of 139 bodies of water across the country found that 80 percent had significant traces of prescription drugs. 

After marijuana, prescription drugs are the second most common form of illicit drug abuse among our nation’s teens.  Nearly 20 percent of Maine’s high school seniors say they have abused prescription drugs, frequently taken from the home of a parent or grandparent.  Law enforcement officials throughout the nation say that investigations of overdoses show that a significant source of the drugs is unused prescriptions that collect in medicine cabinets.  Too often, other family members or friends may abuse these prescription drugs in the mistaken belief that they are safer than street drugs.   

The problem goes beyond experimentation.  Drugs in medicine cabinets also can lead to home invasions and burglaries.  In addition, young children are often attracted to the colorful pills they discover in medicine cabinets.  Unused prescription drugs collecting in our homes are accidents and addictions waiting to happen.

Fortunately, we are moving toward safer and more effective methods of disposing of unused prescriptions.  And Maine is leading the way.

In 2007, the Safe Medicine Disposal for ME program was established using a mail-back system.  Consumers can pick up special envelopes or small boxes at participating pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and post offices year-round.  They are pre-addressed to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA).  Consumers can mail unused or unneeded drugs to MDEA, where they are incinerated at the same high-temperature facility used to destroy illicit drugs.

The system addresses another important issue.  Before the drugs are destroyed, they are inventoried so it can be determined exactly what drugs are being prescribed and purchased, but are going to waste.  This information can lead to better prescribing practices, improved patient education, and lower health care costs.

Since it was established, the program has prevented more than a ton of unused, unneeded or expired drugs from falling into the hands of children or criminals.  Maine’s program should serve as a model for drug take-back initiatives across the nation.

This problem, however, cannot be fully solved through take-back and mail-back programs.  Given the enormous quantity of drugs prescribed in our country and the tragic consequences of their abuse that occur every day, we require an ongoing, regular disposal method modeled after Maine’s program.

That is why I cosponsored the bipartisan “Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act,” which was signed into law by the President in October 2010.  This legislation removes a major impediment to the mail-back system: federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, did not permit a patient to deliver a prescription medication to another person or entity for disposal unless a law enforcement officer is present to take custody of the drug.  On a daily basis, this would consume virtually all of our law enforcement resources.  The Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act directs the U.S. Attorney General to set clear guidelines so that unused prescriptions can be disposed of frequently and safely, before they can cause harm.

Americans, and Mainers in particular, have demonstrated that our citizens want to dispose of unused drugs properly and will participate in an effort to protect their homes, their communities, and our environment.  During the last National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day in October, more than 377,000 pounds of unwanted or expired medications were turned in for disposal.

For more information about National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, I encourage you to visit www.dea.gov  and click on the “Got Drugs?” link, which will allow you to search the database for the collection site closest to you, or call your local police department for more information.