Taking back the drugs

Chico Walgreens among first in California to offer drop boxes for unused medication

Pharmacy manager Colin Boggs demonstrates the drop-off box newly installed in his Walgreens on East Avenue—open 24 hours.

Pharmacy manager Colin Boggs demonstrates the drop-off box newly installed in his Walgreens on East Avenue—open 24 hours.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Where to go:
The medication-disposal kiosk is inside the pharmacy area at Walgreens on East Avenue and Cohasset Road in Chico—open 24 hours.

During his 35 years as a pharmacist—23 years at Walgreens in Chico—Colin Boggs not only has dispensed medication, he’s also been asked to take it back.

Reasons vary, but the answer is consistent: He can’t. Laws prohibit pharmacies from accepting returns. Putting loose pills (potentially, controlled substances) in the hands of staff (potentially, undetected addicts) represents a risk deemed unacceptable by pharmacy boards and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

“Everything we do, from the minute something is shipped to when we dispense to the patient, is tracked carefully,” said Boggs, the pharmacy manager. “One thing that isn’t tracked is [if] they come back from the public; that’s never been accounted for, and you can’t account for it.”

Periodically the Butte County Sheriff’s Office as well as waste collectors and health organizations such as Enloe Medical Center, in conjunction with law enforcement, hold collection events. In fact, Saturday (April 30) marked the DEA’s 11th National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.

However, Boggs gets requests on a more regular basis. Intermittent drop-offs don’t fulfill the need, and disposal via trash or toilet poses hazards for health, safety and the environment. (The Butte Regional Hazardous Waste Facility accepts medications but has specific restrictions and limited hours.)

Now, there’s an everyday opportunity, located right where Boggs works. The East Avenue Walgreens just became one of 50 locations in California with a medication disposal kiosk.

Resembling a drop box for library books, it’s affixed to the floor in the rear of the pharmacy waiting room—accessible 24 hours daily because the store always has a pharmacist on duty. People using the kiosk needn’t consult pharmacy staff, but laws require the presence of a pharmacist whenever drop-off service is available.

The acceptance slot is wide enough for standard pill bottles and medication boxes; both prescription and over-the-counter medicines are welcome. Injection needles (“sharps”) must be disposed of elsewhere.

This Walgreens is the only one in Butte County with a kiosk; the next-closest is in Yuba City. Paul Caruso from the company’s national media relations office, said Walgreens, which has 8,000 U.S. locations, will consider expanding the program next year after completing installation of kiosks in 500 pharmacies in 39 states and D.C.

Chosen locations are predominantly 24/7 stores such as 860 East Ave., Caruso explained, and spaced out judiciously: “It may not be your Walgreens but a Walgreens nearby.”

The company announced its initiative in February. As Boggs anticipated making the list, he got a call from an equally eager Mark Lundberg, Butte County’s public health officer. So, Boggs ran the request up the ladder.

Once the kiosk arrived last week—fully installed Friday (April 29)—Boggs said Lundberg “was pretty excited.”

Indeed, Public Health is excited. Lundberg, who serves on a countywide narcotics task force, sees a permanent and secure drop-off point as vital to keeping potentially dangerous chemicals out of the landfill and waterways, and out of the hands of children and people who abuse drugs.

“I view this as a community asset,” he said. “Getting these medications out of the medicine cabinet when they’re expired or no longer needed is a great thing to do.”

Opioid pain-relievers and “mind-altering medications used for anxiety, depression and other conditions” are “wonderful medicines when prescribed for the right reasons,” Lundberg added, “but any medication can be a source of injury to a child exploring.” Moreover, misused pharmaceuticals “can become the source of an overdose or the source of someone exploring a drug that becomes a lifelong problem.”

People find themselves with extra pills for myriad reasons. One prescription may not prove as effective as another. A surgery patient may not require a full supply of painkillers. Seniors pass away, as in hospice care when comforting drugs get prescribed.

Pill bottles, left unsecured, make tempting targets not only for unsuspecting kids but for hard-partying teens, pill-pilfering guests and drug-addicted burglars. Boggs even has heard of potential homebuyers pocketing bottles during open houses and tours.

“Now people can go through their cabinets, get rid of the medicines that are unneeded, safely dispose of them and not worry about them,” he said. “Judging by the phone calls I get, it’s good to make this cut-and-dry for people.”