Take Back Day fights prescription drug abuse


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An Iowa City police car is crammed with bags of brightly colored prescription drugs. The drugs were not confiscated but voluntarily given to help with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “a national epidemic.” Iowa City police Officer Jorey Bailey is on his way to turn them in to the Drug Enforcement Agency, which will incinerate them.

Bailey worked with the East Side Recycling Center on Oct. 26 to collect more than 100 pounds of pills, keeping them out of the Iowa City water systems and also out of the hands of abusers, as a part of National Take Back Day.

According to officials, prescription-drug abuse has exploded over the past 15 years. In Iowa, the number of annual deaths by prescription drug overdose may have grown around 400 percent.

“In 2011, there were 62 deaths by overdose in Iowa,” said Steve Lukan, the director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy. “Compare that with a decade ago, when there might be a dozen or fifteen deaths.”

One of the goals of Take Back Day is to raise public awareness of the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

“There [were] pamphlets available at the drop-off sites, that helps educate people,” said April Rovero, the president of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse. “Education is critical. Rehab and law enforcement are important too, but education can stop the problem at its source.”

Lukan said that prescription drugs are particularly dangerous because people misunderstand them.

“Kids don’t understand how powerful [pharmaceuticals] are,” he said. “These are serious drugs, every bit as powerful as street drugs.”

MECCA, the Mid Eastern Council on Chemical Abuse, is a substance abuse center which serves Iowa City, and treats more than 4,500 patients each year. Quinn Berry, a counselor, said that a “significant and growing” number of those patients are there for prescription drug abuse.

“Adolescents in particular use more of the Adderall-type ‘study drugs,’ ” Berry said. “Because they’re prescribed by doctors, people think these drugs are safer, or not as addictive. But Adderall is an amphetamine, which means it’s not dissimilar from cocaine.”

Lukan echoed Berry’s thoughts, saying that younger demographics are at greater risk of drug abuse because of their willingness to experiment with drugs.

“Young people are my biggest concern,” Lukan said. “Their demographic is the most likely to abuse prescription drugs, to experiment, and to move on to harder drugs.”

With so much danger officials see associated with prescription drugs, they say it becomes important to discuss the causes of the rise in drug abuse.

“It’s a very multifaceted problem,” Rovero said. “Physicians can play a large role by not over-prescribing, and pharmacies should more actively deny suspicious customers.”

He also said these are challenging problems without immediate solutions, but he is hopeful that Take Back Day is an effective stopgap measure.

“2012 saw fewer deaths by overdose than 2011,” Lukan said. “I think that’s in part because of Take Back Day. Last spring we saw nearly 8000 pounds of drugs brought in around Iowa.”

Take Back Day is geared less towards prescription-drug abusers, Rovero said, and more toward the family and friends who may be unknowingly supplying the abuser. Seventy percent of prescription-drug abusers take pills from their friends and family.

“Simple things like locking your medicine cabinet, counting your pills, and taking unused pills to year-round drop-off locations can make a big difference,” he said.

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