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DEA event encourages safe disposal of old prescription drugs

By Kevin Liptak, CNN
  • The drug take-back event is part of an effort to halt prescription drug abuse
  • Americans were urged to turn in their old and unused prescriptions
  • The event was held amid a rise in pill abuse, especially among teenagers

Washington (CNN) -- The Drug Enforcement Administration urged Americans on Saturday to turn in their old and unused prescription drugs as part of an effort by the agency to stop a rise in prescription drug abuse.

The drug take-back events, which the agency said took place at 4,000 sites across the country, provided the opportunity for people to drop off old medications safely and anonymously. The DEA plans to incinerate the drugs later in the week.

Holding the event was the first step in stopping what the DEA's acting administrator calls a "worrisome" trend in teen drug use.

"It starts with getting the medicine out of the medicine cabinet," Michelle Leonhart said. "It allows us to get out there and get the word out to communities, to parents, to teens, and even the elderly about the dangers of having this medicine sit and languish in the medicine cabinet."

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health released earlier this month, about 17 percent of Americans have abused prescription drugs, meaning they took medicine for non-medical reasons.

The survey found that in 2009, nearly 20 percent of 18-year-olds had abused prescription painkillers, an increase from 2008.

Deaths from overdoses of prescription painkillers are also on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that unintentional deaths from such drugs as oxycodone and hydrocodone increased 110 percent from 1999 to 2005.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that teens are also abusing stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, and depressants like Valium or Xanax.

Washington, D.C., police chief Cathy Lanier says teenagers and young adults are particularly susceptible to prescription drug abuse.

"More recently what we're seeing is young people and teens taking prescription drugs out of medicine cabinets, taking them to parties, sharing them with friends, not really knowing what it is they're passing along," Lanier said.

The DEA attributes the rise in pill abuse partly to the ease with which teens can access old prescriptions.

"As parents and grandparents, we often spend a lot of time child-proofing our home," Leonhart said. "We don't often think about teen-proofing. And that really is getting the medications that are not needed, getting them out of the medicine cabinet."

Getting rid of drugs can be confusing for people who aren't sure of proper disposal methods. Throwing old pills in the trash leaves them vulnerable to theft, and people surveyed at one take-back event Saturday seemed unsure if flushing medicine down the toilet was safe.

The DEA recommends flushing pills if the bottle says they're "flushable," and placing non-flushable pills in kitty litter or coffee grounds and throwing them in the garbage.

Ruth Pearl, a Bethesda, Maryland, resident who was throwing away pills at a DEA collection point in Washington on Saturday, said she was getting rid of old painkillers because she had heard about their potential for abuse.

"OxyContin, Codeine, and I can't even remember the other names," Pearl said. "Good painkillers. That's what I wanted to get rid of, and when I saw the thing in the paper, I thought this is the perfect time."

While Saturday's take-back event is not likely to alter prescription drug abuse patterns in a large way, organizers and observers said getting the message of prescription drug abuse out was just as important.

"I think the best thing we can do is continue to get the message out," Lanier said. "Just this event today has certainly raised the level of awareness of a lot of people, people that I've spoken to here and people at other stations around the city."