SOUTHWEST HARBOR—An average white tail deer weighs about 150 pounds.
That is about the same weight in prescription drugs the police department here collected last year as part of the National Prescription Drug Take Back initiative.
With about 150 law enforcement agencies participating throughout the state, a total of 58,860 pounds of prescription drugs were collected in 2019. To understand what that kind of weight looks like, it would be about the same as piling five, full-sized elephants on top of one another.
This program focuses on collecting unused prescription drugs that can range from opioids to high blood pressure medication to birth control. With such a high return rate, a question to ask might be, how much medication is prescribed in Maine, a state with one of the highest aged populations?
“I’m wondering if that might be a factor,” said Southwest Harbor Police Chief Alan Brown in an interview with the Islander this week. “You could speculate 100 different things that contribute to it.”
There are two collection days each year for the program, which was started in 2010 by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
“It’s completely anonymous,” said Brown. “The goal is to get these drugs out of your house. It’s a host of prescription drugs. It’s meant for anything that you’ve been prescribed and no longer need.”
In 2010, the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act was created as an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act by the 111th Congress of the United States. Several findings are outlined in the act, including the increased nonmedical use of prescription drugs by teenagers, an increase in deaths and treatment admissions for controlled prescription drugs and the fact that one third of all new abusers of prescription drugs in 2006 were 12-17 years old.
“Overdoses is one part, but community health is a big part of it as well,” said Police Chief Jim Willis, who oversees the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police departments. “A lot of communities have detectable levels of prescription drugs in their water supply.”
An article published in June 2018 by the University of Washington cited mussels found in the Puget Sound tested positive for opioids. According to the article, the mollusks were absorbing what was deposited by wastewater treatment plants into the ocean. While scientists in the article attributed the levels of opiates to those consumed by people, prior to the creation of the safe disposal act, medications were often flushed down the toilet instead of being disposed of in the trash.
Now, people can safely dispose of their medications by finding a participating law enforcement agency in their area. There are a few rules regarding the collection. Liquid medications and needles are not items that can be deposited in designated boxes. Within the police departments on MDI, those looking to dispose of prescription drugs can do so in a secure drop box.
“We’re open 24/7 at both lobbies,” said Willis about the departments’ collection boxes for the program. “We collect 24/7, 365 days a year, and hold on to it all. We treat it like we treat our evidence; keep it locked up with limited access.”
There were 110 pounds collected in Willis’ towns on the Oct. 2019 collection day.
“For our two agencies, it all gets reported under Bar Harbor’s name,” said Willis. “We kind of get a lot when a family member has passed away. People will come in here with bags of stuff.”
Over the course of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s initiative, Maine has collected a total of 412,117 pounds of prescription medications from residents. That number ranks the state eighth in the nation for highest amount collected, more than states with larger populations such as Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington.
“I think that is because of the combined effort,” said Willis, about the statewide collaboration of law enforcement agencies. “It just works really well. I think it just shows the strength of our relationships.”
Public outreach plays a large part in collection efforts as well. Each year, Brown includes the town’s efforts in the town report.
“I include it in my report because I think it’s valuable,” he said. “I don’t think you can remind the public enough.”
Over the last nine years, collections days for the program take place in April and October. There was no collection day this last April because of COVID-19, so the amount collected in October is anticipated to be significant.
“We’re going to be turning over almost a year’s worth of drugs,” said Brown. “I would expect the amount to be about the same [as last year].”
On collection day, local agencies bring their sealed boxes to a pickup location in Hancock County. From there, the collections are transported to Bangor, according to Brown.
“We’ll keep adding to a box until it’s filled up and we’ll close it off and seal it and store it in our evidence until a collection date,” he explained, adding an average box weighs 30 pounds. “You’d be surprised, when you put a bunch of pills in a box, how heavy they are.”