Police agencies across Maine are joining with the Drug Enforcement Administration in a national effort to collect unneeded and expired medicine.

Michael Wardrop, DEA’s resident agent in charge, said 63 Maine police agencies have signed on to the effort, which takes place Sept. 25.

“We have a shared responsibility to look out for the public safety and well-being of our communities and everyone is stepping up to meet that responsibility as a unified team,” Wardrop said.

Unused pills languishing in a medicine cabinet, particularly painkillers and anti-anxiety medication, have become a major source of recreational drugs for young people. They can also become a target for burglars.

National surveys have shown that most teenagers abusing prescription drugs got them from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet, according to the DEA.

“Most communities do not routinely offer consumers the opportunity to properly dispose of these medicines,” Wardrop said. “As a result, many people keep the drugs because they do not know how to dispose of them.”

Maine experienced a spike in the abuse of prescription medications starting in the late 1990s with the introduction of the powerful painkiller OxyContin. Since then, drug diversion has become an increasingly serious problem everywhere.

“The non-medical use of prescription drugs is at epidemic levels, not just in Maine now, but it’s being recognized across the country,” said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

McKinney cited one study which said half the people showing up for painkiller addiction treatment started using the medicine recreationally.

Prescription medication also can lead to illegal drug use.

Young people try prescription medicine without fear of side effects, believing it to be safer than street drugs, which is not true, said McKinney.

For people who become dependent, the high cost of prescription medicine – oxycodone often costs $1 per milligram on the street – can lead to the use of cheaper drugs like heroin, he said.

“It is a gateway,” he said.

Illicit use of prescription drugs has been identified as a priority problem by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The DEA nationwide collection helps fulfill one of the key goals of that office.

Maine already is at the forefront of the efforts, the only state with a statewide drug take-back program, McKinney said.

The program, overseen by the Department of Public Safety, uses pharmacies and physicians to distribute envelopes that residents can use to send expired medication through the mail to the state for proper disposal.

The service started as a pilot program last year and has so far collected 2,300 pounds of drugs – including 250 pounds of controlled drugs like painkillers – in almost 4,000 envelopes. The program costs $150,000 per year.

Several communities have held collection efforts and there are ongoing collections in such places as Brunswick, Bath and the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, in Penobscot County and in Caribou.

“Maine is doing a great job in this arena,” McKinney said. “It’s great that there’s a national effort under way in order to highlight this issue.”

Having a number of local agencies participating in a collection effort makes it more likely people will take advantage of it, Wardrop said.

“Convenience is very important,” he said. “If it’s convenient, people will take the time to actively dispose of their unused, unwanted or expired prescription and over-the-counter medications. If it’s not convenient, for example having to drive five towns to go to a collection site, they probably won’t do that.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

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