Medication Nation: DEA Plans More Drug 'Take-Backs' After September's 749,000-Pound Haul

By Susan Jones | March 25, 2016 | 6:48 AM EDT

Prescription painkillers should not be a first-choice for treating common ailments like back pain and arthritis, according to new federal guidelines designed to reshape how doctors prescribe drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin. The CDC is urging doctors to try physical therapy, exercise and over-the-counter pain medications before turning to opioid painkillers like the ones shown in this photograph. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

(CNSNews.com) - Four out of five heroin users started on pills, and many people who use or abuse opioid pain pills get them from a friend or relative's medicine cabinet, Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told Congress earlier this week.

"And that's why we have reinstituted our national take-back program."

Rosenberg noted that the most recent take-back day, in September 2015, was a big success, as measured in pounds:

"I'll break it down a little bit, if I may. But in September of last year, we took in 749,000 pounds of unwanted and expired drugs. By some estimates, only 10 percent or so are opioids, but even if that's true, even if it's quote-unquote 'only 10 percent,' that's still about 74,000 pounds of opioids.

"So we think we're making a difference. We're going to continue these programs. Our next take-back will be April 30th of this year, so not that far away, about five weeks. And if it's like our last take-back program, it will be in 5,000 communities around the country."

The other take-back day this year "will likely be in October," he said, "and I'm hoping we build on the success."

The DEA drug take-back events protect everyone's privacy, Rosenberg told a House Appropriations subcommittee on March 22.

"We don't read labels, we don't take leads off of those things. If you want to bring in BenGay or aspirin or opioids, whatever you want to dump in, we'll take it. But people need to know that they do so anonymously because we have to encourage people to empty out those cabinets."

Rosenberg said the United States has five percent of the world's population, but consumes 99 percent of the world's hydrocodone. "And so I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the connection between pills and heroin is as strong as it is."

He said the DEA is approaching the opioid problem with a "360-degree" strategy, including keeping pain pills in the legitimate stream of commerce, attacking the supply side, and trying to reduce demand  through education and treatment and prevention.

"If we don't start knocking down the demand side, we can't possibly win against the supply side," Rosenberg said.

The 360 program is now being tested in four cities -- Pittsburgh, St. Louis, West Memphis (Ark.) and Milwaukee.

"We looked at cities generally that had an uptick in crime, cities...that were large cities but not enormous cities and cities where we thought we could make an immediate difference. We're looking now at another round of cities, and we're trying to approach this sort of driven as much by statistics as we possibly can. Where do they need us, where has a problem gotten worse and where can we make a difference.

Rosenberg said the initial feedback from the first four pilot cities has been good, and he said he would like to expand the 360 program if he can.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told Rosenberg about a local take-back program in his home state of Kentucky that was collecting "tons upon tons" of drugs that were burned in a Kentucky National Guard incinerator -- "until EPA comes along and says, that violates the atmosphere." So the take-back program went away. "Can you help us with that?" Rogers asked Rosenberg.

"Well, I think the way we can help is that we've worked through those logistics with the EPA, and so when we hold these take-back days, we can gather this stuff from various departments and have it incinerated according to regulation. With respect to the specific EPA regulations, though, sir, I don't know enough about it. I do know that we're able to help the local police departments that gather and collect by holding our own take-back days," Rosenberg said.

"Another example of your friendly EPA doing good for America," Rogers commented.

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