Continuing Maryland's push to stem drug abuse, officials sought Wednesday to refocus the annual prescription "take-back" day on treatment and prevention and away from law enforcement.
The nationwide take-back day — which is Saturday — has traditionally been used by its sponsors at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to collect expired or unneeded prescription drugs that could be abused if left in family medicine cabinets, or could poison children or pollute the environment.
But Gov. Martin O'Malley set a goal of reducing overdose deaths by 20 percent by the end of 2015, and public health officials have been looking for ways to have a bigger impact.
For example, state officials decided to house a new tracking system for all prescriptions written in Maryland in the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and plan to train medical staff at hospitals and elsewhere to recognize abusers and steer them to care.
Two local nonprofits used by the city for substance abuse and mental health services merged a year ago as the agencies look to improve treatment access and quality, as well as take steps to prevent abuse.
"We all need to do a better job responding to people who have issues and do a better job of preventing abuse," said Bernard J. McBride, president and CEO of the newly merged group Behavior Health System Baltimore, which hosted Wednesday's news conference on the take-back program. "Collecting unused prescription drugs, including some that people abuse, is part of our effort."
McBride said his agency still works with law enforcement officers and considers them important partners in stopping diversion of prescription pain medications. There have been a few arrests recently of staff at pain clinics that prosecutors called "pill mills."
The collection points set up for Saturday's take-back event in the Baltimore region remain housed mostly in police precincts as well as some churches and a community center. Howard County police, for example, are collecting drugs at several community police centers and other locations.
Another goal of the program is to keep people from flushing dangerous drugs into wastewater systems or simply throwing them out, which can cause environmental problems. The collected prescription drugs will be destroyed.
The DEA announced a policy change Wednesday that would allow pharmacies and hospitals to more easily take back prescription medications if they show they can do it safely. Maryland lawmakers have tried to get such take-back programs started, but Gary Tuggle, an assistant special agent at DEA, said efforts were limited because until now only locations with police could be considered for pickup.
There also is a nationwide push to reduce the number of prescriptions written for the most abused painkillers. There were 259 million such prescriptions written in 2012, enough for each American to have a bottle of pills, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Center of Excellence at Brandeis University.
Maryland doctors wrote 74 prescriptions per 100 people, the data shows.
There were more than 15,500 overdose deaths related to opioid painkillers nationally in 2009, and more than 40 percent of overdose deaths in Maryland in the five years ending in 2012 were linked to those pain pills, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
McBride cited a national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report that found in the past year that 4 percent of adults in Baltimore City admitted using a prescription that wasn't written for them. Among high schoolers in Maryland, the number was 15 percent.
One person who began abusing prescriptions as a teen was Thomas Hick, who has been sober for 16 years and works at Helping Other People through Empowerment Wellness and Recovery Center, or HOPE, a mental health and substance abuse center for Baltimore's homeless.
Hicks, who attended Wednesday's news conference, said there isn't much that will stop a determined abuser. Indeed, officials say the crackdown on prescription drugs has pushed some people to cheaper, more readily available heroin. But making it harder for some to access prescriptions could make the difference for them.
"I took anything that said 'may cause drowsiness' thinking if I took enough I'd get a high," said Hicks, who went on to abuse drugs for more than three decades. "But not having the availability is good. I support anything like that."
Find a drop-off site
To find a take-back site, click on "Locate a Collection Site Near You" on the DEA's National Take-Back Initiative page