Should Opioid Makers Pay For Collection & Disposal Of Unused Painkillers?

By Victoria Kim 12/12/17

The DEA already hosts 2 annual take-backs but one expert suggests that the service should be made available on a year-round basis.

person placing unused pills in a bin

Given the role of some drug makers in escalating the opioid crisis, it does not seem implausible that they should shoulder part of the effort in dealing with excess supplies of unused painkillers sitting in people’s homes.

This suggestion was made by Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University—that perhaps there should be a mandate for opioid manufacturers to collect and dispose of the pills they made themselves. 

Federal legislation passed in 2010 allows for organizations like pharmacies, hospitals, and clinics to have prescription drop-off services year round. But few are taking advantage of the law, Humphreys noted. There’s little financial incentive for these organizations to offer such services, which must be maintained and monitored carefully. Collected prescriptions must then be destroyed, an additional cost to the organization.

Humphreys recently tackled the issue in the Washington Post, writing that opioid manufacturers could absorb some of the cost of these services, by paying “a few bucks per returned bottle of pills to the patient and to the drop-off location operator.”

It’s estimated that every year, roughly 200 million opioid prescriptions in the United States “are not finished by the patient for whom they are intended,” writes Humphreys, who is also an affiliated faculty member at Stanford Law School and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

“No one knows how many unused opioid pills lie forgotten in American medicine cabinets and sock drawers, but it’s surely in the billions,” he continued.

According to the CDC, most people who abuse prescription opioids get them from a friend or family member. Most are given, while others buy or steal them from loved ones’ medicine cabinets.

Every year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts two prescription drug take-back events across the United States. At recent events, they’ve been hitting record numbers of collections. At the last take-back event in late October, the DEA reported collecting 456 tons of pills across more than 5,300 collection sites—almost six tons more than April’s take-back event.

One initiative in Iowa is taking a different approach to unused prescription drugs in one area where tons of prescription medications normally go to waste—nursing homes. When residents pass away or move out, their medications are either incinerated en masse or flushed down the toilet. 

Instead, SafeNetRx, the non-profit organization leading the medication redistribution efforts, collects these unexpired medications from nursing homes and then redistributes them to patients who otherwise could not afford them.

“All that medicine is perfectly good and perfectly safe,” said Rep. Nicholas Duran (D-Miami) who is trying to bring a similar initiative to Florida. “Rather than being burned up, it could be put back to some great use.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr