Denham Springs — As East Baton Rouge Parish sets a new annual record for heroin deaths this year, several communities in the metro area have begun programs aimed at stemming the abuse of prescription medication, often seen as a precursor to harder opiates.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials say Louisiana lags behind other states, including nearby Arkansas, where every county manages a dedicated, safe disposal site. While that level of local disposal assistance doesn’t exist in this state, several area law enforcement agencies, including in Denham Springs, are beginning to offer the service.
Authorities have preached for years the need to get rid of unwanted or expired medication. The common explanation is that stockpiles of drugs such as painkillers are a temptation for personal abuse and a target for thieves — either to ingest themselves or to sell to addicts.
But law enforcement has also warned against throwing pills in the trash or washing them down the drain, as that can cause ecological problems. When police need to get rid of medicine, they must incinerate it. So responsible prescription drug users are in a bind.
For the past five years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has coordinated take-back days twice a year. But tons of pills build up in six months — actually, 276 tons on average, just counting those turned in to the government.
The DEA has collected over 5.5 million pounds of drugs during the first 10 national take-back days, the most recent of which was held Sept. 26. That day, the New Orleans DEA division — which covers Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi — recovered nearly 50,000 pounds, according to a news release.
Federal take-back days are a help, but Louie Lajarza hopes they eventually will serve as a supplement to local disposal efforts once city or parish leaders take a more active approach. Lajarza, the DEA’s Louisiana diversion group supervisor, said the DEA can help law enforcement and other organizations set up collection programs, but they aren’t required to register with the federal agency, making it difficult to track how many are in operation in the state.
However, there are more organized efforts elsewhere, such as in Arkansas, where the state attorney general, National Guard, police agencies and the DEA teamed up with the state health department and local Rotary Clubs to buy at least one drop-off site for each county and coordinate the destruction of the medication, explained Lisa Barnhill, the diversion group supervisor in Little Rock.
Some Louisiana communities also are becoming more proactive. About a year ago, East Feliciana Parish received a federal grant that will pay $125,000 annually for five years to combat alcohol and prescription drug abuse, explained program coordinator Deborah Thomas.
The parish already has placed pickup sites, which look a bit like large mailboxes, in five communities, she said. Workers also bring a mobile drop box to various community events where medicine can be surrendered, no questions asked.
Items are securely collected, inventoried and weighed before being burned at a state police incinerator in Zachary, which is next scheduled to happen Dec. 28, Thomas said.
West Feliciana started up its own program recently and hosted its first local take-back day earlier this month in St. Francisville, netting 8 pounds of prescriptions.
Police in Denham Springs also have installed a collection site at their station, where it’s safe, secured and surveilled, said Chief Scott Jones.
“(Residents) feel better; we feel better,” to have a safe disposal location, he said.
Collection is especially important around the holidays when many families entertain guests, Thomas said. Hosts may not always know which visitors are in addiction recovery or otherwise tempted by the medicine cabinet.
“Prescription drugs are easily accessible” and can induce a person to seek out illegal drugs that mimic their effects, she said.
“That leads to addiction to heroin and other substances … that are more addicting.”
Lajarza, of the DEA, said some law enforcement agencies may be reluctant to start a year-round collection program because of the cost, which he said is difficult to estimate. A small police department or sheriff’s office may not have extra secure storage areas or staff to oversee collection and destruction.
“We (in Louisiana) are kind of behind right now because we don’t have as much funding as other states,” Thomas said.
However, with the rise of prescription abuse, there’s more talk of local collection programs.
“They’re becoming more well-known,” she said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.