Police stations and participating pharmacies all over the state will allow people to drop off prescription drugs that they no longer need, with the hopes that opioids can be taken off the streets.
While the program’s efficacy is debatable, it seems to at least be a small net positive to the state.
New Jersey’s Drug Take-Back Program
Participating police departments have special boxes in which you can place any drugs you no longer want, including expired drugs. The police then periodically dispose of them in the proper way.
The program is essentially an evolution of some similar, but smaller-scale, projects by the DEA to provide single-day opportunities to drop off unused medications. Project Medicine Drop provides disposal boxes all year long, seven days a week.
The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs keeps a list of the participating locations where these drop-off boxes are available. Phone numbers for police departments that host them are available on that same list, so people can call for any clarifications.
The primary goal of Project Medicine Drop and programs like it is to combat the opioid crisis. The hope is that by giving people a way to safely dispose of prescription drugs, more people will get rid of any opioids they have but no longer need. This will reduce the availability of these addictive drugs and hopefully lower abuse rates in the process.
National drug take-back days can remind people about these programs and to check their medicine cabinets for drugs they no longer need.
Many pharmacies participate in drug take-back programs. Some people fear repercussions if they were to try and drop off drugs at a police station, and these drop boxes at pharmacies provide an alternative option.
Pharmacy participation can help pharmacists potentially identify people who unknowingly have been taking their medications improperly. This is a common problem with antibiotics, where a patient stops taking the drugs when they feel better rather than finishing the whole course.
While there are not many downsides to pharmacy participation, the receptacles to store the medication can sometimes be large and moderately expensive. The programs have also been known to attract drug seekers who try to steal from the receptacle — something they are less likely to do from a police station’s collection bin.
Employees cannot be mandated to participate in drug collection. Some employees may disagree with the nature of the program or simply be uncomfortable handling returned medication.
Are These Programs Effective?
The greatest positive for drug take-back programs is arguably, perhaps surprisingly to some, the data that is collected. For example, one study showed that a significant portion of prescribed opioids go unused. This information was found by looking at drug take-back events, specifically by comparing how many days’ doses were left versus how many were prescribed.
By looking at this data and more, doctors can better prescribe opioids, so extra opioids are not left over when a patient either no longer wants to take them or no longer can. Sharing prescribed opioid medications is a big problem in the United States and can get people addicted to opioids, so figuring out ways to reduce a person’s ability to share leftover medication is significant.
Unfortunately, it seems the primary goal of these programs — to directly reduce opioid abuse by getting unneeded opioids out of homes — is mostly unfulfilled. One study showed only about 0.3 percent of medications dispensed were disposed of through these programs annually, which is not enough to have a notable impact on opioid abuse.
The programs still seem to be a net positive to public health; they may just be a much smaller positive than some hoped for when creating them. Since Project Medicine Drop’s start, it is estimated to have collected over 70 tons of medication. This includes all medication, not just opioids or other addictive forms.
Unfortunately, New Jersey still struggles to deal with opioid abuse and overdose deaths, seeing a substantial rise above average in terms of deaths even as doctors prescribe fewer opioids. It is arguable that any program that can help get opioids off the street, however small in scope, is worth keeping around.
Helping to Protect Streams & Drinking Water
With these programs, people have a clear and easy way to get rid of medications. While most medications can be flushed down the toilet (which is generally the recommended way of disposing of them), some cannot. For some people, it may be less confusing to simply drop off medications to be professionally discarded.
In one study by the United States Geological Survey, it was found that 80 percent of a sample of 139 streams spread over 30 states had trace amounts of chemicals common in prescription drugs. Often, water treatment plants cannot fully filter these chemicals out of water, including out of drinking water.
The exact way this might impact human health and the environment is not fully understood. While studies have not shown a major impact on humans, these chemicals have been shown to impact aquatic life.
Exactly how well these drug take-back programs are helping with this issue is difficult to say. It is notable that urine can also contain some of the drugs that person has taken (both if their use was legitimate or otherwise), and that most people aren’t disposing of their drugs through these programs regardless.
This medical pollution factor isn’t a primary goal of these take-back programs, although it is likely the drugs are at least not disposed of in water. Illicit drugs are usually incinerated, and most drugs obtained through Project Medicine Drop and similar programs are disposed of the same way.