San Francisco Could Become First City With Full Drug Take-Back Program

By McCarton Ackerman 03/27/15

The city's Board of Supervisors took a "major step forward" in holding drug manufacturers responsible for their product.

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Drug take-back programs have been an increasingly popular way to dispose of expired or unused medications in suburbs and small towns across the country, but San Francisco could soon step up as the first major city to have such a program.

The city’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance for the program last week that only requires the signature of Mayor Edwin Lee to become a law. It mimics a similar law passed three years ago by nearby Alameda County. While take-back programs are praised for lowering both the risk of drug abuse and contaminants in drinking water, municipal and county officials have expressed concern over the cost of these programs and have turned to drugmakers to provide funding.

Unsurprisingly, the pharmaceutical industry has fought back, filing a lawsuit last year which argued that the Alameda County program interferes with interstate commerce. A federal appeals court ruled last September that the ordinance did not place significant costs on interstate business and treated all drugmakers equally.

“This is a major step forward. The passage of this ordinance amplifies the growing tide of legislation being passed ... and holds manufacturers responsible for the post-consumer management of their products,” said Scott Cassel, chief executive at the Product Stewardship Institute, a nonprofit that supports take-back programs. “The pharmaceutical industry has a long history of fighting such laws; they could avoid the cost of litigating if they were instead to engage in dialogue with local governments and nonprofits to create programs that make economic—and environmental—sense.”

James M. Spears, general counsel of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has spoken against mandatory take-back locations because it adds travel time for consumers. He’s also expressed concern that the collection points could become a haven of violence by thieves and addicts. Spears recommends tying up unused pills in a plastic bag and throwing them in the trash.

Legislators in seven states have introduced similar bills in recent years to make the pharmaceutical industry pay for these take-back programs. The industry also pays for these programs throughout Canada. The take-back program in British Columbia, with a population of four million, costs $500,000 per year.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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