The families kept coming on the rainy Saturday to a Columbia shopping center, bringing grocery bags stuffed with pill bottles, jugs filled with syringes and armloads of prescription medication.
The needles alone filled more than a dozen trash-can sized bins. Howard County families dropped off hundreds of pounds of pills on National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.
“You have people who are stockpiling this stuff. They open their trunks and have years’ worth,” said Joan Webb Scornaienchi, director of HC DrugFree, a small nonprofit fighting drug addiction in Howard County.
In Baltimore, meanwhile, volunteers gathered at the Walgreens Pharmacy in Highlandtown to collect medication. Gov. Larry Hogan had urged Marylanders Friday to participate.
Community groups around the country organized their own take-backs as part of the national effort to curb opioid addiction and remove painkillers from the streets.
Public health officials continue to grapple with the addiction crisis. Opioid-related overdoses in Maryland have kept climbing and rose 14.8 percent in the first half of this year, according to the Maryland Department of Health. The overdoses killed 1,185 people. That’s about 150 more than the same months last year.
While state and city leaders have increased efforts to slow the trend, community groups are helping in their own way. Dozens of people volunteered Saturday in Columbia alongside their neighbor, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.
Every six months, HC DrugFree collects prescription medication. The drop-offs are one of the few places in Maryland able to safely collect needles, said Scornaienchi, the director. She said people have called her from as far away as the Eastern Shore to try to dispose of needles from cancer or fertility treatments.
Volunteers have collected as much as 1,212 pounds of medication in one day, she said. As many as 600 cars have come in four hours. Once a mother brought them her child’s heroin kit.
“We’re doing this so the kids don’t start with what’s at home in the medicine cabinet,” Scornaienchi said. “Your 11-year-old is not going to go out and buy drugs on the street corner. He’s going to take the pain medication that you have in your home.”
Most families bring stockpiles of medication they find after cleaning out the home of a family member who has died, she said. They are advised not to throw away needles, which could harm garbage collectors or landfill workers. They are cautioned against flushing the pills. Most wastewater treatment facilities are ineffective at removing pharmaceuticals from water. The medication is dangerous for fish and other wildlife.
“We don’t want this stuff in the bay,” Scornaienchi said.
As she spoke, another volunteer came up, his arms laden with unopened boxes of cholesterol tablets.
“Twenty pounds of pills,” he said, “they couldn’t get them to stop sending.”
Back at the curb, Nicole MacGregor was accepting bags of pills and thanking families. She was calling out “trick or treat.”
And for Deb Lattimer, the volunteer work was particularly meaningful. She said her nephew died of an overdose last year. He had struggled with heroin addiction for eight years.
Collecting these pills in the rain, she said, felt empowering.
“It makes you feel like you’re possibly preserving someone else from being addicted,” she said.
Then Jon and Mary Haar walked up with their medication. That morning, the Jewish couple heard news of another mass shooting — this one at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. A civic duty stirred in them, Mary Haar said.
The decided to drop off their old medication and to vote.