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What to Do with Unused Prescription Medication?

By Heather Millar

pill bottle

I reorganized my bathroom drawer today. The main reason I did it was to postpone making a couple unpleasant phone calls. But way in the back of the drawer, I found a time capsule of my cancer treatment, now three years in the past–a clutch of half-empty bottles: steroids that helped me through chemo, pills for nerve pain, pills for muscle pain, pills for digestive distress.

What to do with these cancer leftovers? Ideally, I’d like some other patient to make use of them. At the very least, I’d like to dispose of them in a way that’s responsible. Flushing old drugs down the toilet or tossing them in the trash is NOT a good idea, the drugs eventually seep into the water supply as outlined in this WebMD feature. No one’s sure how dangerous these trace amounts of prescription medicines may be—the research has yet to be done—but most public utility districts have programs for safe prescription drug disposal.

But I didn’t want to throw out my old drugs, I wanted them to help someone else. I live in San Francisco, perhaps the epicenter of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” revolution. Recycling seemed so much cooler than just being safe.

But recycling drugs, it turns out, is much easier said than done. If you Google, “drug recycling” and the name of your state, the first results will probably be for drug disposal, not drug recycling. Apparently, it is a bit easier to donate drugs in some countries overseas.

Of course, I’m not the first person to have these thoughts. At least 38 states and the territory of Guam have passed laws seeking to establish prescription drug recycling, repositories or redistribution. You can find a state-by-state list of what’s been enacted, here, at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) website. At least five states—Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Wisconsin—have approved programs designed to collect and redistribute cancer-related prescription drugs.

There have been a few notable successes. Beginning in 2007, for instance, an Iowa non-profit has collected .8 million worth of medicines and distributed them to 26,800 needy patients. Several states have had success redistributing medicines within a single institution, such as a long-term care facility.

In most places, though, the worthy idea of redistributing drugs runs into significant hurdles. Many states have passed laws, but the programs haven’t yet been established. The questions are many: Who’s going to pay for this? Drug companies? The taxpayers? The insurers? What kinds of drugs will be accepted? How can we make sure the donated drugs are safe? Who will have the ability to donate?

In the NCSL report on this issue, the authors provided these general guidelines:

  • Many states require that prescription bottles be unopened, or that the drugs be packaged by dose, usually in sealed blister packs.
  • Old drugs, past their expiration date, are never accepted.
  • In many states, only a professionally designated person, such as a doctor or a pharmacist, may donate drugs.
  • Compensation for donated drugs is usually prohibited.
  • Check with your local pharmacy or with your doctor to see what might work in your state or your situation.
  • If you just want to dispose of your drugs safely, check with your local disposal company for the correct procedure.

Given all this, I guess my only option is to dispose of my drugs safely. Alas, all the bottles have been opened. All the pills have past their expiration date. My local trash company lists about a dozen pharmacies that will take my old drugs and get rid of them safely. It doesn’t feel as good as recycling would have, but it’s better than nothing.

Have you been able to recycle unused medications for yourself or a family member? Let us know your experience here.

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