The latest weapon in the war against prescription drug abuse is a waist-high box.
Holly Wilford made good use of it Saturday afternoon when she tossed a bottle of medication into one such box in the parking lot of the Green Hills Walgreens.
"People used to say, just flush it down the toilet," she said of the unwanted pills. "We need help disposing of it appropriately. People just don't know what to do."
To that end, law enforcement agencies throughout the nation on Saturday held their fifth national "take-back" initiative, in which people could drop off unused and unwanted medication at drop-off points. The effort is to help combat the nation's prescription drug addiction epidemic, which exploded about a decade ago with the growth of prescription pain pills and pain clinics. In the years since, federal and state officials have tightened regulations to try to reduce the problem, with some success.
"Between the prescription monitoring databases and some of the legislation across the country, we are starting to see some progress with this epidemic," said Mike Stanfill, assistant special agent in charge for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Nashville. "These laws are still fairly new, and it still remains to be seen what impact they will have. But at least they're headed in the right direction."
Indeed, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released a report showing that prescription drug abuse dropped to its lowest rate since 2002, mostly driven by young adults abusing less and less. The problem proved particularly tough to tackle, in part because abusers didn't fit the profile of a "typical" drug user.
"It kind of created a whole new class of addicts that probably would have steered away from the cocaine or heroin or methamphetamines," Stanfill said. "What we saw was a huge increase of abusers from white, middle-class high school and college-age kids. It's suburbs, urban, rural -- this addiction has no boundaries."
In response, states began heavily regulating pain clinics and tracking and limiting patients' ability to "doctor shop." In 2010, the DEA held its first take-back event to help people clear out unwanted medication that could be stolen.
"Sixty percent of teens talk about one of the ways they have gotten pills is through someone's medicine cabinet," Stanfill said. "Pills just sitting there with no purpose are open to being abused."
A successful event
Larry Lockhart, diversion group supervisor for the DEA in Nashville and the take-back coordinator for Tennessee, said Saturday's event was successful. At Green Hills, where Wilford dropped off some unwanted pills, officials collected 168 pounds of medication. In Rhea County, officials collected 450 pounds at one location, he said.
Stanfill said each take-back not only gets those drugs out of circulation -- everything collected is incinerated -- it also keeps the prescription drug abuse problem in the public consciousness.
"They seem to be getting better and better every time," he said. "There seems to be more state and local involvement and more public awareness on the need to get these pills disposed of."