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Pill collection program could cure epidemic of abuse

Prescription drugs are finding their way into the hands of Hubbard County's youth, authorities say. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

An alarming epidemic of substance abuse is lurking behind every citizen's medicine cabinet and Hubbard County officials are trying to stem to tide.

"Prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States," wrote Sara Bowles, Hubbard County's chemical health coordinator in sounding the alarm.

"Because prescription drugs are legal, they are easily accessible, often from a home medicine cabinet. Further, some individuals who abuse prescription drugs, particularly teens, believe these substances are safer than illicit drugs because they are prescribed by a healthcare professional and sold behind the counter."

Bowles is leading the county's push to begin a collection program that would get unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs off the streets and out of the hands of teens.

County officials would like to put a lock box at the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department as a secure collection site.

"They're getting in the wrong hands," Sheriff Frank Homer said of the prescription meds. He said often times medications are the focus of burglars and thieves using unique means of access to homes.

Due to medical privacy laws, Homer said it's impossible to get the numbers of drug overdoses that wind up in hospital emergency rooms, but it's a growing number.

"We need to implement a program to get these drugs out of homes and set a direction in some type of collection," the sheriff said.

"Law enforcement will have more control over it when the supply goes down," Bowles said.

Public health director Chris Broeker said she has heard pills like Vicodin and Oxycontin are being sold for $20 apiece on the streets.

Kids take them with alcohol and mix in an energy drink, Bowles said, which has the potential to disturb an adolescent brain's chemical makeup during the formative years.

Bowles said the present method of disposal is usually the garbage, which then presents environmental problems.

Chemicals in the discarded pills eventually seep into the groundwater, she maintained. Incineration is the only option, but Minnesota doesn't presently have any sites operating. The drugs would have to be transported to an Illinois incinerator.

Bowles said that's why a county-by-county push toward regional collection sites is important. It could eventually save the high transportation costs of taking the pills out of state.

Only the scheduled drugs need incineration as medical waste. Legend drugs, such as heart medications, must be disposed of as household waste, she said.

Grandpa and Grandma's medicine cabinets are prime pickings, Bowles maintained.

Kids aren't doctor shopping to get the pills, Bowles said. 'They're medicine cabinet shopping."

Some visit rummage sales and ask to use the owner's bathroom, where they plunder the medicine cabinet. Others prey on people newly home from surgery and with a fresh supply of pain pills, Bowles said.

Hubbard County board chair Lyle Robinson said he supports the program, but wants to see it done correctly.

People driving around with expired pills in the back seat or glove compartment might forget to drop them off, leaving a potential target, Robinson maintained.

He wants to ensure the "drop box" is actually a secured vault with only limited access.

And Robinson said more drugs are entering the groundwater system from the human body's elimination process than are seepjng from garbage.

"There may be a different solution in the future that presents itself," Broeker said, such as mail-in envelopes where people could return unused medications. But "it's an important first step," she said of the drop box idea. "We can do it for minimal amounts of dollars and maintain it."

"There's a lot of good kids out there," said Vern Peterson, who works with the Greater Akeley Youth Council. "But there's kids so weak their peers can lean on them: 'Let's go to Grandpa's house.'"

Peterson said he was naïve to the epidemic initially before realizing how problematic prescription pill abuse was becoming.

"I don't think we can afford not to do this, to just talk and do nothing," he said.

Bowles hopes to get the program started by fall. Homer said he would put together some cost estimates. Grant monies will fund the program for the first couple years, Bowles said.

"I appeal to you as a grandfather and citizen, don't drop the ball, please," said Peterson.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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