Lawmakers consider safe prescription drug disposal legislation

Data taken from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Utah Opioid Summary. (Sydnee Gonzalez)

Utah lawmakers are proposing legislation to promote safe prescription drug disposal containers in hopes of reducing opioid overdoses, lower addiction rates and protecting the environment.

Data showing the harm of prescription drugs being disposed of irresponsibly created concern among healthcare providers and Utah lawmakers.

A study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example, showed that there were 456 drug overdose deaths involving opioids in Utah in 2017. This is a rate of 15.5 deaths per 100,000 persons, compared to the national rate of 14.6.

Intermountain Healthcare identified this problem among their patients and launched a campaign in 2017 called Use Only as Directed, which is still running today.

Since the campaign has been implemented, Intermountain Healthcare has collected over 30,000 pounds of disposed medications from dropbox locations at various pharmacies. People’s knowledge regarding proper usage and disposal of prescription drugs has increased since Intermountain’s efforts to raise awareness statewide.

Nathan Peterson, Intermountain Healthcare’s community relations director, hopes the campaign will continue to educate patients on the proper use of prescription drugs by talking to their doctors about the risk of addiction, asking for alternatives to opioids and safely disposing of leftover or expired medications.

“Looking at data drove us to make this program. Nationally, (Utah was) ranking within the top ten for many years in terms of opioid overdose,” Peterson said.

The Use Only As Directed campaign consists of three steps: speak out, opt out and throw out. Intermountain Healthcare is excited about the progress the campaign has made in helping the public to raise awareness of the proper usage and disposal of prescription drugs. Since the launch of the campaign, 83% of Intermountain’s patients have asked questions about the risk of addiction and 52% of patients have discussed alternatives options to opioids with providers.

Prescription opioids are the main driver of overdose deaths, with nearly 70% of those deaths in Utah in 2017 involving these drugs. Intermountain Healthcare partnered with Riverton City to pilot a safe prescription drug disposal plan after seeing the high volume of improper drug use and disposal.

Utah Rep. Eric Hutchings saw the results of this plan and became involved with the issue of proper drug disposal when he saw the facts for himself. Hutchings explained that 80% of people who are addicted to illegal drugs first used legal drugs.

“Addictions really are a medical problem. Hitting them with a judicial stick doesn’t solve anything; you have to address what got them into the situation in the first place,” Hutchings said.

Drug addicts may seek out various ways to find legal drugs that have been disposed of irresponsibly to satisfy their cravings by looking through neighborhood waste bins or other garbage collection areas. Because local residents store and use prescription drugs on a regular basis, it is not uncommon for residents who have remaining prescription drugs to dispose of them by throwing them away or flushing them down the toilet.

When medical drugs are flushed down toilets, the chemicals they release have a negative impact on the environment, specifically the watershed. Hutchings used Lake Mead as an example of how drug disposal is affecting the environment.

Scientists have discovered endocrine disruptors which can cause cancerous tumors and other physical disorders in living creatures, in the fish throughout Lake Mead. This disruption is an effect of consuming too much estrogen, which is released from the prescription drugs being disposed of in the water systems.

Seeing the harmful effects of careless drug disposal led lawmakers to consider a responsible way for disposing of the drugs using a container called NarcX — the only on-site pill disposal solution that meets Drug Enforcement regulations. Once pills are dumped into a container, a safe solution dissolves the pills and ensures that they become completely non-retrievable, making it impossible for drugs to be taken back out and used for consumption.

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs has seen success with the implementation of NarcX in his community. Staggs approved the placement of five to six kiosks in the city of Riverton, which have been in operation for about a month. The drop-off sites are available in public places like the city hall and fire departments.

The drop-off containers cost about $500 per unit. While this may be expensive for varying city budgets, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he is open to discussing legislation that will help Utah cities use state grants to implement these drug disposal containers in various communities.

Thatcher is proposing to introduce two bills, one which will ban the flushing of prescription drugs and another to attach state funding to help cities afford these drug disposal containers. 

“If there’s anything that precludes a city from putting (the NarcX containers) where they want, we want to be able to help them and address that,” Thatcher said.

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