Vashon's 'Operation Medicine Cabinet' offers a chance to get rid of expired meds

Islanders will have a rare chance to drop off their unwanted or expired prescription medications at a community checkpoint on Saturday, when the Island’s first-ever Operation Medicine Cabinet takes place at the Vashon Farmers Market.

Disposing of medications this way, rather than tossing them in the trash or flushing them down the toilet, helps both the community and the environment, organizers said. All medications will be accepted, from psychoactive controlled substances to common aspirin; the pills will be incinerated at a Drug Enforcement Agency-approved disposal site.

Prescription medication abuse is a growing issue in Washington and on Vashon, organizers said, with pain pills, anxiety medication and muscle relaxants generally being the most commonly abused medications.

According to a 2006 Healthy Youth Survey, 10.3 percent of Vashon 12th-graders and 11 percent of Vashon 10th-graders had used prescription painkillers recreationally.

What’s more, drug overdoses have surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in Washington state, according to a recent ABC News report.

Many of these drugs, such as Percocet and Vicodin, are highly addictive opiates — and their abuse can lead to heroin use, experts say.

Those behind Saturday’s event hope Islanders will recognize the seriousness of the issue and take advantage of Vashon’s first drug take-back event — an opportunity to keep addictive pills out of the hands of kids and teens or anyone else who may take them without a doctor’s orders.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen to have an unused or expired prescription or medication in the home,” said pharmacist Tom Langland, co-owner of Vashon Pharmacy, a sponsor of the medication drop-off event. “You just don’t know when your kids or the friends of your kids will decide to do something inappropriate. ... Get rid of things if you aren’t using them.”

King County Sheriff’s Sergeant Calvin Berringer, who oversees Vashon Island, agreed, adding that misuse of such drugs could lead to horrific surprises.

“There could be adverse reactions,” he said. “Theoretically, you could die, that’s the worst case scenario, or you could end up going to the hospital having your stomach pumped.”

But simply tossing one’s medications in the garbage or flushing them down the toilet isn’t a good idea, said Ginger Nocera, project coordinator at the Vashon Healthy Community Network, a group that’s working to reduce drug and alcohol use among young people on the Island and a sponsor of Saturday’s event.

Statistics show that the majority of people get rid of their prescriptions by throwing them in the trash or flushing them down the toilet, she said — a method that was touted for years as the best way to dispose of pills.

“We know it affects aquatic life when you flush your things down the toilet,” Nocera said, adding that it can also taint the local water supply.

And when medications are thrown in the trash without being sealed in a water-tight container, they can contaminate their surroundings as well, Langland added.

The best possible way to deal with unwanted medications is to incinerate them, Nocera and Langland agreed — and that’s what will happen to all the pills collected at Saturday’s event.

A King County Sheriff’s deputy will be on hand at the event, as will Langland and other community representatives. The deputy will take the medications off-Island, likely to Spokane, where they’ll be incinerated, Berringer said.

Similar drug take-back events have taken place across the nation, from California’s Bay Area to Illinois and Wisconsin, to address the growing problem of prescription drug abuse, Nocera said.

Statistics show that only 14 percent of prescription drug abusers get their medications from a doctor, she said, while about two-thirds get them from a friend or relative. So it’s critical that unintended access to prescriptions is reduced in whatever way possible, organizers say.

“I think it’s a wonderful program,” Berringer said of Operation Medicine Cabinet.

“It’s ultimately good to have a community program like this, because we can all band together to do what’s best for the community and the environment.”

Operation Medicine Cabinet will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, at the Village Green.

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