Today is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, an effort to promote the environmentally-responsible destruction of unused or expired prescription drugs, so they can't be stolen or abused. Last Drug Take Back Day in October, Americans returned 912,000 pounds (456 tons) of unwanted medications. This time, the one million pound mark is in sight, which would bring the total collected since Take Back Day began in 2010 to 10 million pounds. That's a lot of Vicodin.
Leftover drugs prescribed for legitimate reasons often get overlooked as a culprit in the opioid crisis, especially compared to overprescribing and illegal drugs. But government data shows that roughly 70 percent of abused prescription drugs come from family and friends. Providing a safe and convenient way to dispose of unwanted medications can reduce this number. There are hundreds of disposal sites located throughout the country to choose from, in addition to the many pharmacies which provide drug disposal receptacles throughout the year.
The same can't be said about other well-intentioned responses to the opioid crisis. There's a debate about whether a major federal response to the crisis — cracking down on prescription painkillers — has done much good. Some critics, such as Jacob Sullum at Reason.com, make a persuasive case that this has made the opioid epidemic even worse — or at least more deadly.
In response to the widespread concern that prescription drugs have been overprescribed, doctors and pharmacists have come under intense pressure to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed. The Drug Enforcement Agency ordered the number of opioids produced last year cut by 25 percent and a further 20 percent this year, with further reductions likely. The number of opioid prescriptions has fallen by nearly one-third since 2011.
While reducing opioid prescriptions has undoubtedly stopped many new addictions, it has also led some patients and non-medical users to turn to illegal drugs, which are usually stronger, non-standardized and more dangerous. This has increased overdose risk. As opioid prescriptions have plummeted, opioid overdoses have roughly doubled.
At the same time, some other patients, who would never turn to illegal drugs, are forced to suffer through their pain. There are harrowing stories of people with debilitating conditions suddenly having their access to pain medication cut off after decades of relying on it to function. They are often treated suspiciously or even like criminals when they protest that they need their painkillers to maintain their quality of life.
This isn't to say that these unintended consequences are greater than the positive effects of addressing overprescribing. But the issue is far more complicated than many government officials and pundits would have you believe.
The opioid Gordian knot is all the more reason to support uncontroversial solutions that work. That means supporting drug treatment centers, which are proven to help people quit using drugs. It means supporting the more widespread distribution of Naloxone, which temporarily blocks the effects of opioids and will reverse an opioid overdose.
And it means tossing your old Percocet, OxyContin and Vicodin on drug take back day today and encouraging friends and family to do the same.
Holly Strom RPh., a licensed pharmacist, is a former president of the California State Board of Pharmacy, member of the Safe Prescribing Action Team (Pharmacy Practice) of SafeMedLA.org and the founder of Strom and Associates LLC, a pharmacy consulting practice.