Few Pharmacies Answered DEA's Call for Drug Disposal Programs

A little more than a year has passed since the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced that pharmacies could collect and destroy unused prescription drugs, but what kind of impact has this regulation made?

A little more than a year has passed since the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced that pharmacies could collect and destroy unused prescription drugs, but what kind of impact has this regulation made?

The response to the DEA regulation has been “insignificant” thus far, The New York Times reported. In fact, just about 1% of American pharmacies have established drug disposal programs.

Under the DEA regulation, pharmacies can voluntarily set up and maintain drug collection receptacles, and those that became “authorized collectors” and had on-site means of drug destruction could operate a mail-back program.

But when the DEA first announced the new rule, pharmacy associations such as the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) and the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) were hesitant to embrace the regulation.

APhA Executive Vice President and CEO Thomas E. Menighan said he had concerns about safety, liability, and cost.

Likewise, NCPA CEO B. Douglas Hoey, RPh, MBA, said at the time that his association was considering which, if any, of the disposal options would be feasible for independent pharmacists.

There are several reasons why pharmacies may be hesitant to implement these programs. For one, pharmacies are tasked with the cost of collecting, safeguarding, and incinerating the pills. They are also responsible for guarding the drop boxes and transferring drugs to disposal facilities.

In addition, at least 8 states do not allow pharmacies to take back controlled substances, according to The New York Times.

Two of the larger retail pharmacy chains, CVS and Walgreens, have also taken issue with the costs and security risks associated with collecting expired or unused drugs.

CVS director of public relations Mike DeAngelis told Pharmacy Times that logistical concerns, including the actual management and disposal of the medication, have proven problematic.

“One of key challenges is that while the DEA rule allows collection of unwanted controlled medication, the management and disposal of these collected medications is regulated under solid and hazardous waste laws and regulations,” DeAngelis said.

He explained that some states have minimal restrictions on household hazardous waste or solid waste collection, while other states have many restrictions. Considering these state variations in hazardous waste laws, it is “unclear as to how they would apply to pharmaceutical take-back,” he said.

Instead, CVS is more focused on its Safer Communities program, which provides drug collection units to police departments, as well as the TakeAway Environmental Return program, which uses postage-paid envelopes.

Around 7 tons of unwanted medicines have been collected through the Safer Communities program since it launched a year ago, DeAngelis said.

Walgreens spokesman James W. Graham told Pharmacy Times that customers ask about drug disposal on a daily basis at Walgreens stores, and the company recommends a $3.99 product called MedsAway.

Patients who buy MedsAway can mix their medications in a bag with water, and the product neutralizes the drugs and makes them safe to dispose in the trash.

“This keeps [the pills] from harming the environment or falling into the wrong hands,” Graham told Pharmacy Times. “…We consider this the safest and most convenient way to dispose of unused medications.”

He said Walgreens also participates in drug take-back day events in partnership with local law enforcement.

While national DEA drug take-back days have been successful in rounding up more than 2400 tons of pills over the years, some research has found many of these collected pills are non-controlled medications like cholesterol drugs or aspirin, according to The New York Times.

One of the main goals of the drug take-back days is to curb prescription drug abuse and overdoses involving opioids.

Some of the most common medications involved in prescription drug overdose fatalities are hydrocodone, oxycodone, oxymorphone, and methadone, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.