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Just the right medicine

Investigator Jim Vanlandingham of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office processes an expired prescription at last year’s Operation Medicine Drop. Representatives of the sheriff’s office will be on hand Saturday in the Lowe’s Home Improvement parking lot while the Washington Police Department will be in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Operation Medicine Drop is a take-back event that provides a safe and secure option to dispose of expired or unused prescriptions or over-the-counter medications. (WDN File Photo/Christ Prokos)

Operation Medicine Drop tackles public safety concern

A public health hazard

The heroin crisis of the 1970s; crack-cocaine in the ‘90s. Two decades later, another drug crisis is in full swing, though this epidemic goes largely unremarked upon. Vicodin, OxyContin, Percoset — technically they’re legal as long as they’re prescribed by a doctor, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now consider prescription painkillers to be a public health hazard.

In the U.S., prescription drugs are responsible per year for more deaths by overdose than cocaine and heroin combined. In a 2008 study by the CDC, the numbers spoke bluntly: 36,450 drug overdose deaths; of them, 20,044 were caused by prescription drug overdose, 74 percent of which were caused by opioid pain relievers (OPR) — the same pills medically prescribed to address pain issues.

Abuse in North Carolina varies little from national statistics. In 1999, prescription drug overdoses began to skyrocket, last year killing over a thousand people across the state. The CDC estimates that five percent of all Americans, and it follows, North Carolinians, have used prescription painkillers recreationally.

“I first started (working narcotics) in 1997 and I’m still dealing with the same people,” said a spokesman for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Drug Unit. “Now these people are selling prescription pills along with crack-cocaine, heroin. It’s a moneymaker. If you’re not working prescription cases, you’re missing what’s going on.”

In an effort to combat the illegal sale of painkillers, the sheriff’s office has applied for a grant that would allow them to hire a full-time diversion officer, a position dedicated solely to prescription painkillers cases. While local law enforcement officials attribute most painkiller-theft reports to addicts hoping to replace prescriptions when other sources have dried up, thefts of meds do occur: according to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, underage users aren’t getting their painkillers prescribed by a doctor. They’re getting them from their parents’, grandparents’, and friends’ medicine cabinets.

Protecting our waterways

The Yadkin Riven starts in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and winds south, becoming the Pee Dee River near Uwharrie National Forest, before crossing the border into South Carolina. It’s one of the many rivers which the U.S. Geological Survey has studied. It also happens to be the one with the highest percentage nationwide of fish with both male and female reproductive organs, a statistic largely attributed to the effects of pharmaceuticals finding a way into the waterways.

Locally, the U.S.G.S has tested the Tar River and found elements of seizure drugs, antibiotics, hormones, and others, according to Heather Jacobs Deck, the Pamlico-Tar riverkeeper.

“From the water perspective, what we’re learning is that these pharmaceuticals are having a negative effect on the creatures who live there,” said Jacobs. “If these drugs are showing up in our waterways, they’ll get to the point of effecting public health.”

Deck explained that technologically, sewage treatment systems aren’t yet to the point where pharmaceuticals can be eliminated. Flushing medicine down a toilet or sink could mean that medication ends up in the region’s rivers and their tributaries.

Proper disposal of medications, in an environmentally safe way, is necessary to ensure the health of the Pamlico and Tar rivers and the wildlife they support.

Operation Medicine Drop

The stated mission of Safe Kids North Carolina is to reduce and prevent accidental injuries. Their mission, along with reducing prescription painkiller abuse and preventing pharmaceuticals from entering the waterways, form the basis of Operation Medicine Cabinet, a collaborative effort of North Carolina law enforcement, health and safety, substance abuse prevention, environmental organizations and others. Twice a year they hold Operation Medicine Drop, a DEA-sanctioned event where the public is invited to hand over their leftover, expired, unused prescription medicine to law enforcement to keep it in safe hands and out of the waterways.

“North Carolina is really leading the country in these type of coalitions and doing the work regarding this issue,” said Jacobs. “It’s a wonderful partnership with law enforcement.”

Saturday, two drop-off stations will be set up in Washington: the Washington Police Department will be in the parking lot of Wal-Mart at Pamlico Plaza on Carolina Avenue; and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, along with volunteers from Pamlico-Tar River Foundation and the Beaufort County Developmental Center, will be located in the parking lot of Lowe’s Home Improvement on N.C. Highway 17.

Lt. William Chrismon of the Washington Police Dept. calls Operation Medicine Drop “win-win all the way around.”

“If we take (medications) out of the houses…that keeps children from getting into them,” said Chrismon, explaining that the department sees the event as “a routine service to community at zero cost…and it helps us in the long run.”

During the two events held last year, law enforcement officials collected 59,000 dosages, according to Pam Daw of BCDC. She stressed that all medications are accepted, including veterinary medicines, and that drop-off is hassle-free.

“We don’t take any names, just whatever meds they want to give us,” said Daw.

Both drop-off sites offer drive-up services, no questions asked.

“Weather permitting, if people just want to drive up and hand it out the windows—it’s completely anonymous,” said Chrismon.

All medications will be incinerated at the county animal shelter.

Operation Medicine Drop will take place between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, March 24. Barring biohazardous substances, all medications are accepted.