From left, assistant professor Dr. Nick Hagemeier, pharmacy student Hannah Marcum and assistant professor Dr. Jeff Gray sort through 221 pounds of discarded medications recently at the Kingsport Justice Center. David Grace photo.
KINGSPORT — Steel, locked boxes stationed outside several local law enforcement agencies, including the Kingsport Police Department and Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, may eventually provide new insights on the region’s abuse of prescription drugs.
Staff and students from the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy at East Tennessee State University periodically make the rounds to sift through the boxes’ contents: unused, unwanted and expired medications.
Local police say dropping them off is a quick and anonymous way for residents to keep the items out of the wrong hands — and prevent them from contaminating water supplies and landfills with hazardous materials — but the personnel from ETSU are trying to pin down a pharmaceutical phenomena.
“Prescription abuse in our area is disproportionate when you compare our region with others,” says assistant professor Dr. Jeff Gray, his gloved hands picking through a rainbow mountain of drugs on the table. “The problem is vast here.”
The College of Pharmacy has recently been awarded $2.2 million in grant funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, launching a five-year research program on drug abuse and misuse.
Accompanied by pharmacy students, Dr. Gray and assistant professor Dr. Nick Hagemeier are documenting what’s placed in the boxes at local police agencies: Kingsport Police Department, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office in Blountville, Johnson City and Bristol Police Departments and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Jonesborough.
The study aims to identify how better communication among health care providers, pharmacists who fill prescriptions and the patients taking meds can reduce illicit drug use.
“We’re really good at dispensing (medication),” said Gray. “We need to be much better with patients as to telling them what to expect, and what to do with them when they get them.”
The study also hopes to determine how successful the drop box programs are in removing potentially abused medications from households, and by extension, keeping them off the streets.
“Look,” says Gray while at the Kingsport Police Department, holding up a discolored medication bottle dropped into the box. “Ativan — controlled, abused, high risk.”
An expiration date on the label reads 1985.
On a visit to the KPD, Gray, Hagemeier and pharmacy student Hannah Marcum weeded through 221 pounds of discarded medications, separating controlled from non-controlled substances. The haul is what’s been accumulated at the police department since June 2.
“This is personal for me,” says Gray, “having lost a couple friends to drug abuse.”
The KPD first held a drug take back day in 2010, but it didn’t install a permanent drop box inside the department lobby until January 2012. Paid for by a grant from the National Drug Diversion Investigators, it has now collected more than 2,200 pounds of drugs.
“We were skeptical,” says KPD Public Information officer Tom Patton. “We thought people wouldn’t go through the effort to bring it in, thinking it would be easier to flush. But we collect as much as 30 pounds a week.”
Once cataloged by researchers, all the drugs collected are incinerated at a controlled facility. Patton encouraged individuals with unneeded or expired medications to take advantage of the program, adding that 70 percent of prescription abuse among adolescents is the result of medications they find in a family member’s home.
He said that in 2010, 272 million doses of hydrocodone were prescribed in Tennessee: enough to supply 51 doses for everyone in the state over 12-years-old.
“We don’t want it to end up in the wrong hands,” Patton said. “And some people will go though people’s medicine cabinets and trash looking for medication.”
A similar box is stationed in the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office in Blountville, provided by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Just prior to last week’s visit to Kingsport police, ETSU researchers stopped at Blountville to identify and document 151 pounds of discarded medications.
“Our Vice and Narcotics detectives simply don’t have the time to go through and separate the commonly abused controlled medications from the other medications that are dropped off,” said SCSO Public Information Officer Leslie Earhart, complimenting the findings of the ETSU researchers. “Because of that we didn’t have a clear picture of just how much our prescription drug drop box was impacting the community until recently.”
Items accepted at the participating drug drop box locations include prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs, veterinary meds, herbal supplements and vitamins. Needles, biohazard materials and illegal drugs are not allowed.