The federal government is organizing what could be the last National Prescription Drug Take Back Day on Saturday in light of new regulations allowing pharmacies to begin pill collection year-round.
Last month the U.S. Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced rules allowing pharmacies, some hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities to collect medication for disposal.
“It makes sense logically,” said Amy Tiemeier, a pharmacist and professor at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. “If you are picking them up there, it makes sense to take them back to the pharmacy. It will increase the amount of medications that are disposed of.”
Before, federal law only allowed law enforcement agencies to collect the medications. Some communities have permanent drop boxes in police and sheriff’s departments. Twice a year, the DEA also would organize federal take back days.
Saturday is the next National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., drop box locations will be set up across the country for medication disposal.
“This is pretty exciting,” said Chris Angel, President of the Great Lakes Clean Water Organization. “A simpler process will allow more people to take advantage of this. We will see a large uptick in the number of people and number of drugs being collected as opposed to getting flushed down the toilet.”
In 2008, an Asociated Press investigation found “a vast array of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.”
When announcing the new DEA regulations allowing pharmacies to collect medications, both controlled substances — like Adderall, Ambien, Percocet and Xanax — and uncontrolled substances — like over-the-counter medications and antibiotics — Attorney General Eric Holder said about four in 10 teens who misused prescription drugs obtained them from medicine cabinets.
While the new regulations could make collection of unwanted prescription pills easier for patients, it will not happen overnight.
Pharmacies have to register with the DEA to start collecting medications, Tiemeier said. The pharmacies then have to decide if there will be a drop box at their location and have to meet the specifications for the drop box: security, liners, etc. Pharmacies collecting medication will also have to find a reverse distributor to work with.
The new regulations do not specify whether or not the drop-off services have to be available free of charge, meaning a pharmacy could charge a fee for the service.
“It’s going to be gradual,” Angel said. “Pharmacies have to find a program to connect with to provide this service.”
Angel is part of the group which started the Yellow Jug Program in Michigan. The program places yellow jugs in pharmacies and collects non-controlled substances.
Since the program started in 2008, the group has collected 55 tons of medication. Angel said the average pharmacy collects over 66.5 pounds of medication over a five-year period.
There are over 300 Yellow Jug Program locations collecting pills across Michigan alone. The program expanded into Illinois and Wisconsin in 2012 and into Indiana earlier this year. Angel’s goal is to have programs up and running in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York by the end of next year.
As soon as the DEA regulations are enacted October 9, the program will be collecting controlled substances as well.
While the new federal guidelines now allow for pharmacies to collect medications, some state laws may need to be modified to allow pharmacies to start collecting.
“There may, in fact, be instances where a state might need to modify its existing law to accommodate the DEA rule,” Scott Cassel, the chief executive officer and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, said.
“For example, in Minnesota, the state law may need to be changed to allow pharmacies to take back controlled drugs,” Cassel said. “In other states, Boards of Pharmacy may need to change their processes, rules or laws.” The institute is a nonprofit based in Boston which promotes the safe collection and disposal of products.
“What consumers can do is if a local pharmacy is not involved yet, consumers should be going in and saying, ‘Get involved and have this in my state’,” Angel said.
Angel said it is mostly independently-owned pharmacies participating in the Yellow Jug Program. Calls and email to most of the big chain pharmacies like Walmart and CVS were not returned.
In an email, a spokesperson for Walgreens said the company is currently “studying the DEA’s new regulatory requirements and considering the options they present to us.”
Lynn Walsh is a data content producer and investigative reporter on the Scripps National Desk. She may be followed on Twitter through the handle @LWalsh.