The Lee County District Attorney's Office is taking steps to combat the growing opioid epidemic by funding four drug take-back kiosks in Lee County.
District Attorney Brandon Hughes said misuse of prescription opioids has not yet become an epidemic in the county, but that opioids are the number two drug citizens are arrested for possessing, second to marijuana.
"Everyone is very, very familiar with the opioid issue that we’re dealing with," he said during a recent press conference celebrating the installation of the drop-off kiosks in local pharmacies. "Some call it a crisis; some call it an epidemic. If we’re not there right now, we’re going to get there if we don’t do something."
In this effort to be proactive, Hughes' office has committed to spending about $4,000 annually to allow for four local pharmacies to host drug take-back kiosks — lime green mailbox-like compartments in which residents can drop off expired or unused medications.
The money pays for the kiosks themselves as well as the shipping and label materials the Drug Enforcement Agency requires the pharmacies to use when shipping the drugs off to be destroyed.
The four kiosks will be located in local pharmacies around Lee County — Our Home Pharmacy in Auburn, Bubba's Medicine Shop in Opelika, Beauregard Drugs and Crossroads Pharmacy in Smiths Station. The kiosks have been installed and are in working order in addition to others that have existed at the Lee County Sheriff's Office, East Alabama Medical Center and Smiths Station City Hall.
"Anyone who has expired medication or medication just sitting in their medicine cabinet that they don’t use anymore, don’t have any use of and want to get rid of it, they can bring it to any of those ... locations," Hughes said. "You open the (kiosk) chute, throw them in, and then the pharmacist will take care of properly destroying those."
Ann Redding of Crossroads Pharmacy said that in the past, she has had to turn people away who have tried to return unused medicines. Without the proper approval from the DEA, it is illegal for pharmacies to accept medicines for destroying.
"I’ve been a pharmacist for almost 30 years, and I can’t tell you how many people have asked me to take back drugs and we can’t. We have no way," she said. "So we’re very grateful to kind of complete the cycle and help our community and be a resource for them."
Craig Hyatt of Our Home Pharmacy said the only times he used to be able to collect expired or unneeded medicine from customers was twice a year, when the DEA would host a drug take-back event in the pharmacy's parking lot each April and October.
"The medication could still not come in through the door," he said. "We had to set up outside."
Hughes said that through the DEA's drug take-back events alone, the organization collects "hundreds of tons of medication" nationally.
"Really mind-boggling numbers," he said. "And this is a growing community, we’re 160,000 strong here in Lee County ... This is certainly going to be used."
Hughes said his goal was to make the drug take-back kiosks convenient to all residents in Lee County in an effort to encourage them to clean out their medicine cabinets and to discourage them from doing so by simply throwing pills in the trash or flushing them in the toilet.
"When you throw them away, they’re there for anybody to get, if they’re sitting in your trash," he said. "You’re not destroying the medication, and that’s one thing that’s going to happen here. When you drop the medication off, it's going to be sent to a site where they will be disposed of and no longer exist.
"Anytime you flush something down the toilet there are dangers of that getting in our system, whether it's the sewer system or water treatment, and that’s just a real problem. People don’t even think about the impact down the road."
He said it's important to clean out your medicine cabinet regularly, as that is the number one spot that users get their drugs.
"Sixty-two percent of teenagers admit to taking medication for non-medical reasons," Hughes said. "They go to grandma’s house, and they find the drugs in the medicine cabinet. We have approximately 4.3 million Americans that abuse prescription drugs, and again, they get them free. They’re stealing them, getting them from friends, family. Over half of our opioid overdoses in this country are coming from prescription drugs."
If the medication is not expired and is needed, Hughes spoke of the importance of securing it. He recently spoke to a local parent, he said, who told him a not uncommon story of medicine theft.
"Her daughter hosted a party, and when the party was over, her medication was gone. It was just stolen," he said. "These are the types of things we're dealing with and why it's so critical we don't just leave medication sitting at our house, that we do dispose of it."
Alabama Rep. Joe Lovvorn and Lee County Commissioner Johnny Lawrence attended the press conference in support of the drug take-back initiative. Lawrence said he is glad to see the county being proactive on this issue.
"The County Commission, about six months ago, we looked at this," he said. "We saw what was going on nationally, and we wanted to know where are we. And we're not there yet; we're not in an epidemic at this particular point. This is one of the few times we are trying to get ahead of the problem, and I think that's very critical in this issue.
"I want to make sure that we take the appropriate steps to give others the opportunity to do the right thing so that hopefully we can stay out of this epidemic. If it does come to us, we’ll at least have this much accomplished and maybe that path will be a little bit clearer for what our next steps are."