Saturday (April 28) is the ninth annual National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, a federal Drug Enforcement Agency initiative launched in 2010. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, enough prescriptions were written that year to medicate every adult American across the country 24 hours a day for an entire month.
The DEA drug take back takes place twice annually, designating safe and anonymous drop-off locations for unused medications. It forms one strand in a web of growing national strategies aimed at combating what is widely considered to be the greatest drug crisis in U.S. history, driven by opioid abuse, a deadly habit that claimed more than 64,000 lives last year.
Drug take backs have special significance in New Mexico, a state that recorded the second highest drug overdose death rate in 2014. In Taos County, an estimated 57 residents died of opioid overdoses over the past six years.
Drop-off points for unused prescription drugs are available year-round in Taos County at Questa Police Department, Taos Pueblo Police Department and Taos Police Department.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Smith’s grocery store will open as a temporary location, along with Questa Police Department north of Taos and Taos Pueblo Police Department. Taos Police Department, however, will be closed. Unwanted medications can be safely and anonymously brought to any location; liquids, gels and needles won’t be accepted.
For another year, the initiative is being enhanced by Taos Alive, a group of community members, law enforcement, health professionals and volunteers who have been meeting every month since 2010 to discuss strategies to combat alcohol and drug abuse in Taos County.
At its inception in 2007, Taos Alive held a narrower aim to combat underage drinking. In 2010, largely under coordination efforts by Julie Bau, Taos Alive expanded the scope of its efforts to include drug prevention.
“A lot of our youth are getting the prescriptions they misuse from family and friends,” Bau said. “A medicine cabinet can be an easy place to access prescription meds.”
Bau echoed studies that suggest a majority of heroin users begin using by first abusing opioid pain medications, which are all but chemically identical to heroin.
The CDC estimates the number of prescription pills sold to health facilities in the United States more than tripled from 1999 to 2010, with many of those prescriptions written by doctors that either lacked awareness of the addictive nature of opioids – or knew it and sought to profit.
It’s a problem that health centers throughout the country have clamped down on since the opioid epidemic was first brought to light. Robert Motha, the current pharmacy director at Holy Cross Hospital, said his department takes careful measures to ensure patients are not overprescribed.
“We monitor the prescribing practices of our providers within our emergency department,” Motha said, adding that monthly reports “profile the prescribing of all controlled substances for each provider to identify any trends or excessive prescribing.”
While such efforts should mitigate overprescribing in Taos County, the county’s overdose death rate, in part driven by prescription pill abuse, still exceeds national and state averages.
According to the New Mexico Department of Health, Taos Alive’s drug buy back events collected almost 1,000 pounds of unused medications from 2013 to 2016.
Miles Bonny, Taos Alive’s prescription abuse coalition coordinator, expects that collections this year will exceed the roughly 150 pounds each event has collected in years past.
That will likely be due to enhanced educational efforts Bonny has made leading up the take back.
He's personally visited local nursing homes, homeless shelters, pharmacies and youth organizations, where he educates the public on the dangers of prescription abuse and demonstrates how an opioid overdose, specifically, can be reversed through the use of Narcan, a nasal spray for which Taos Alive has a license to distribute.
He and his team are hopeful their efforts will show in the form of a record turnout Saturday.
“I definitely believe that word is getting out that returning old and used medication is not only a concept, but a present reality that people can participate in very easily,” Bonny said.