Taskforce takes on prescription pill abuse

Published 7:22 am Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Austin-area leaders are looking to take on a new, growing drug problem — prescription pill abuse.

On Monday, the Austin Area Drug Taskforce presented to City Council a plan that would equip the city with a prescription pill disposal bin, which advocates say would drastically reduce the access — and misuse — of prescription medicines, which can be tricky to dispose of because of various environmental standards.

“If we can get rid of the ones not being used, that would help the situation,” said Bonnie Rietz, a former Austin mayor and current taskforce member.

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The idea calls for a bin to be installed in the lobby of the downtown Law Enforcement Center that would be specifically labeled for prescription pill disposal. The bin, which would resemble a biohazard box found at a hospital, would be secure and could only be emptied from Sheriff Terese Amazi’s office.

In addition to installing the bin, the taskforce would look to contract with an outside agency that could come in, sort the stored pills and dispose of them in an appropriate manner. All told, the project would cost roughly $5,000 a year, with the taskforce seeking about half of that amount from the city. The rest of the funding is slated to come from the county, money seized during various drug searches and the Austin Police Officer Association.

Det. David McKichan, who is assigned to local drug investigations, said the box and removal service would fill a big need because currently his department has virtually no way to take old prescription pills off people’s hands.

“One of the first questions I get is, ‘What can I do with (the pills)? Can I bring it to the (Law Enforcement Center)?’ ” McKichan said. “Right now, the answer is ‘no.’ ”

The detective said he’s seen a big uptick locally in cases of prescription pill abuse, making the need that much more acute. And Austin certainly isn’t alone — nationally, the trend is growing, particularly among young adults. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health’s Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration reports that prescription pill abuse trails only marijuana abuse among teenage drug users, with that gap quickly shrinking.

McKichan and Rietz both said that preventing Austin youth from abusing prescription pills is a big goal, and giving parents an easy way to dispose of old medications that may be sitting in a drawer would go a long way toward doing exactly that.

“It’s just another drug of abuse,” McKichan said. “We’re trying to eliminate the sources.”

Eventually, the program could get more local governments involved, which could reduce overall costs. The idea originally came to Austin by way of a Chisago County deputy, and officials in both Dodge and Olmsted counties have approached the taskforce about joining the effort.

Austin Det. Brian Krueger, who is also on the taskforce, said getting more people involved could also spur construction of a Minnesota-based drug incinerator — currently, the nearest approved facility is located in Illinois. Krueger said getting widespread involvement would reduce transportation costs in the short-term, but he said costs would obviously be reduced further if it was a shorter commute to dispose of drugs.

For now, the plan needs official council approval, which could come as early as two weeks from now at their next meeting. If that happens, Rietz said she could see the disposal box installed and ready for use by mid-May.

“Disposal has been as issue for years,” she said. “This is really a great way of getting rid of those extra medications.”