Are drug take-back events effectively reclaiming controlled drugs?

Are drug take-back events effectively reclaiming controlled drugs?
February 9, 2017

Drug take-back events may not be taking the right kind of drugs back, according to a new study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

DEA Drug Take-Back EventResearchers cataloguing the types and amounts of prescription drugs collected at three Drug Enforcement Agency take-back events as well as drop-boxes in five Kentucky counties, found that only five percent of the drugs returned were opioids and other dangerous controlled substances.

The remaining 95 percent is made up of vitamins and over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs and cold medicine, says Kathleen Egan, a health policy researcher at Wake Forest School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

In 2009, more people died of drug overdose than auto accidents and opioid painkillers were responsible for more deaths than any other type of drug in 2010 according to the CDC. Part of the problem is that the number of opioid prescriptions and the quantity of opioids in the average prescription has dramatically risen since the 1990s. More to the point, according to some estimates, about 70 percent of controlled medications are not taken by the people they were prescribed to.

While hospitals and other prescribers have attempted to focus reforms on educating prescribers and monitoring the drugs that are prescribed, the DEA has been attempting to recover those leftover prescriptions. They began hosting National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day events in 2010, and set a new record for recovered medication at the most recent event in April 2016 by collecting more than 447 tons of medicine nationwide, including more than 7.5 tons from North Carolina.

Prescription Medication

At the three take-back events in the study, which occurred in 2013 and 2014, law enforcement agencies collected more than 21,500 units of controlled medicines. That may seem like a lot, but it is less than half a percent of the prescriptions issued in those five Kentucky counties over that period of time.

What is important to note, Egan says, is that given the relatively narrow scope of the study—one part of one state over a period of two years—these results may not be representative of how effective these take-back events are nationwide. The fact that the numbers of returns are so low, however, is not promising for the rest of the country.

Still, Egan says, that does not mean take-back programs are not important. Law-enforcement agencies still collect thousands of unused prescriptions at each event and the DEA reports that the number of prescriptions collected increases every time they sponsor a take-back event, which shows that the public is more aware of the dangers of unused prescription drugs and more willing to turn them in.

More research will be needed to determine how effective drug take-backs are on a national scale and what other sorts of programs can be used to get those extra medications back.

If you would like more information on drug take-back events near you, you can visit the DEA website by clicking here. Many pharmacies also do prescription take-backs and the ones that do are also listed on the DEA site.

The paper describing this research was published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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