Last year, the coroner reported 267 such unintentional deaths, up from 228 the previous year.
“One or two times a day, my firefighter paramedics respond to a narcotic overdose somewhere in the city. That’s about 500 times a year,” said James Dunford, medical director for the city of San Diego at a press conference at Kellogg Park in La Jolla on Sept. 28. “Last year in San Diego, our emergency departments treated 2,931 people for prescription drug misuse.”
He said about 2,500 teenagers use prescription drugs to get high for the first time each day in the United States, and 20 percent of 11th-grade students surveyed by San Diego County’s Methamphetamine Task Force admitted to using over-the-counter recreational drugs.
“It’s really important to underscore what spectrum of society we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about disadvantaged poor people who are scraping their way through. These are kids that are coming from affluent communities and parents are basically not aware of what is happening,” Dunford said. “The story is always the same: someone takes drugs experimentally, recreationally, oftentimes combined with alcohol. Their friends misinterpret their snoring for just a deep sleep and instead of calling 911, they come back to check on them in an hour and they’re dead.”
A countywide effort to counter this disturbing trend culminated on Sept. 29 for National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, where a collaborative network of community partners, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), local law enforcement, environmentalists, healthcare providers and prevention advocates helped collect hundreds of pounds of prescription drugs at nearly 40 DEA-registered take-back sites across the county.
“These take-back days are very important because, before that, there was no way to logistically get rid of old prescription drugs that were no longer needed. It was illegal to throw them in the trash, it was illegal to throw them in the toilet because it would go into our water stream, the pharmacies weren’t prepared to take them back, so what do you do with them?” said county Supervisor Pam Slater-Price during the press conference. “Basically, they stayed in the medicine cabinets, then kids found they could use some of these drugs to get high.”
To date, the DEA has taken in hundreds of pounds of prescription drugs nationwide through similar take-back events across the U.S.
“We’re going to continue to do these events until a system is in place and regulations are available for the end user to properly dispose of them in a safe manner. We don’t want these drugs getting out to individuals who will abuse them or in the environment, into the water system,” said Tom Lenox, supervisory special agent for the DEA. “We’re going to continue to do these programs. We believe that these are significant in helping the communities and the environment.”
The nonprofit group I Love a Clean San Diego also got involved in the effort to educate prescription drug owners about the inorganic substances’ detriment to the environment if disposed of improperly.
“It’s really common for people to flush medication down the toilet or throw them in the trash,” said Pauline Martinson, executive director of I Love a Clean San Diego. “Flushing or throwing these prescription drugs releases drug residuals into our water system, which causes a health risk to people and animals in our area. These pharmaceutical elements are hazardous to wildlife and may impact groundwater, streams and drinking water sources.”
In addition to the improper disposal of prescription drugs harming the environment, it is also a growing concern for the criminal justice system in San Diego and beyond.
“Many people don’t understand that prescription medications can be just as bad as street drugs in the hands of an unintended user or outside of a physician’s oversight,” said San Diego Police Department (SDPD) spokeswoman Lt. Andra Brown. “Further adding to the burden on public safety and law enforcement is the fact that pharmacy robberies have increased from 14 in 2010 to 26 in 2011. That is a very telling indicator that prescription pharmaceuticals are a growing problem.”
As part of the local law enforcement’s strategy to address the problem, SDPD has established three permanent drop-off locations at its Eastern Division, Southeastern Division and Northwestern Division stations.
“Citizens are encouraged to clean out those medicine cabinets, get those unwanted, unused, expired medications out of the house and into one of these permanent spots so they are properly disposed of and don’t fall into the hands of unintended users and they don’t go into our landfill and harm our environment,” said Brown.
Other permanent drop-off locations include the County Administration Center, located at 1600 Pacific Highway, and a number of Sheriff’s Department stations across the county. For a full list of permanent drop-off locations, visit www.wastefreesd.org.