Experts say the increased use of opiates such as Oxycontin — incredibly addictive, with withdrawals more painful than cocaine — is disconcerting.
Paul Wellman (file)

Following the lead of Alameda County and San Francisco, Santa Barbara supervisors took a step this week toward implementing an ordinance that could put drug companies on the hook for a prescription drug take-back program.

Currently, the Sheriff’s department oversees eight drug take-back bins scattered from Carpinteria to Lompoc through a roughly $172,000 program known as “Operation Medicine Cabinet.” Bins located at the Sheriff’s headquarters in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria fill up as often as every day, according to Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover, and the others start to overflow weekly.

Sheriff’s personnel frequently book the collected material as evidence and drive four times a year to the Los Angeles area to dispose of the meds properly. The department does not inspect the contents of the drop boxes, said Lieutenant Brad McVay, adding, “There are unused prescription medications for every ailment imaginable.”

Shortly after “Operation Medicine Cabinet” launched in 2010, Sheriff’s officials transported about 1,000 pounds of pills (usually in containers) down south each trip. In recent years, that figured has doubled. In fact, 32,400 pounds have been collected in nearly five years, according to county staff, which is a higher rate of poundage per population compared to other counties.

This increase coupled with changes in DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) laws prompted 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr to suggest drug companies come to the table in a manner similar to statewide laws that require producers of mattresses and paint, among other products, to pay for waste management. DEA regulations released in 2014 allow entities such as hospitals and pharmacies to create collection programs; in the past, just law enforcement agencies had such authority.

The concept is not brand new. Last year, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson introduced a bill that required drug manufacturers to set up a statewide system for properly getting rid of unwanted prescription drugs that tend to pile up in the bathrooms of older folks’ homes and could be easily obtained by kids or teenagers. The average senior is prescribed 27 new drugs per year, according to IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. Proponents call such programs very cheap compared to industry’s coffers, but the bill faced severe opposition from Big Pharma and stalled in committee.

Jackson’s bill was modeled after an Alameda County ordinance that passed in 2012. It came under fire from the pharmaceutical industry, which filed a suit last year that lost in a federal appeals court. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court will receive that decision. Farr said Tuesday that ordinance is just one example her office is considering. “It’s clear that people use [the bins] if they know about them,” the 3rd District supervisor said. “As a nation, we have overflowing medicine cabinets everywhere.”

Attention to the issue comes at a time when experts say the use of opiates such as Oxycontin — incredibly addictive, with withdrawals more painful than cocaine — is disconcerting. Since 2012, roughly 300-350 cases of prescription overdose were reported each year in emergency rooms at Santa Barbara County hospitals. That’s as many as five times the number of ER visits for cocaine, heroin, meth, or other nonprescription drug overdoses. And last year, the Coroner’s Office reported 59 overdose deaths, 10 more than were reported the previous year. In the past two years, the county’s Alcohol and Drug Programs increased the funding for methadone, a synthetic opioid used to reduce withdrawal symptoms, from $1.6 million to $3 million.

On Tuesday, the consensus among supervisors and about 10 public speakers was in favor of proper disposal, and many were enthused by the idea of giving the bill to the pharmaceutical industry. Supervisor Peter Adam warned that the industry would shove any costs back into the drug prices. “There’s no free lunch here,” he said.

Others cited environmental concerns as another reason to look into establishing an ordinance as some people flush their leftover meds, polluting the water stream. The board voted unanimously to direct Farr’s office to work with Public Works staff to conduct outreach and to return to the board in October with proposed program expansion.


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