Since the Administration declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in late October, the media has been saturated with stories about the crisis, which has been ravaging communities in relative silence for many, many years. From 2009 to 2015, opioid-related overdose deaths nearly doubled, and overdose cases continue to overwhelm emergency departments across the nation.
I am hopeful that the President’s declaration will put resources toward properly addressing this crisis and transforming the field of addiction as a whole. A comprehensive response will take time and entail major policy reforms on both the federal and local level, but there are also steps that each of us can take to help halt this epidemic to which we currently lose 144 people every day. We can talk to our kids about delaying social drinking until their brains have developed, we can decrease stigma by educating our communities about the science behind substance use disorders, we can make sure our schools are implementing evidence-based prevention programs, we can help loved ones who are struggling to access quality treatment. These vital steps can only happen on a local, personal level and they require education, investment, rigor and patience. Another important step that each one of us can take to help prevent substance misuse in our homes and communities is to clean out our medicine cabinets.
Heroin is involved in many of the opioid-related deaths, but addiction doesn’t always begin with the use of illicit drugs. Studies have shown that two in three people who currently use heroin started out by using prescription pain medications for nonmedical purposes. According to the federal government, 2,000 teenagers will misuse a prescription drug for the first time today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. Many of these first-time encounters with opioids happen in homes with leftover medications that were initially prescribed by a physician.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that two-thirds of surgical patients end up with unused pain medications, such as oxycodone and morphine, after recovering from a procedure. Because most of us aren’t educated about the risks of keeping unused medication in our homes, these prescribed drugs are often neither secured nor disposed of properly, but stashed in medicine cabinets and bedside table drawers. Decreasing access to these medications is one key step in curtailing the opioid crisis.
On Thursday, November 2nd, The Addiction Policy Forum partnered with a number of local organizations in Ohio, a state particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, to distribute free prescription drug disposal kits containing at-home disposal pouches and educational materials. These disposal pouches are easy to use and highly effective—put any unused medication into the pouch, add water (which mixes with chemical properties in the pouch to nullify active ingredients in the medicine) and toss the pouch into the trash.
We launched this effort on the weekend of daylight savings in hopes that one day soon, prescription drug disposal will become a biannual ritual—a habit as common sense as turning your clocks back, flipping your mattress, or replacing the batteries in your smoke alarm. Each autumn, when we all “fall back,” do your part to keep prescription drugs from falling into the wrong hands by properly disposing of your unused medications.
Order a prescription drug disposal kit today by visiting www.addictionPolicy.org/order.
Editor's note: Jessica Hulsey Nickel spoke at a recent addiction forum at Circleville High School hosted by the Pickaway Addiction Action Coalition. With over 25 years in the addiction field, she has worked in the areas of prevention, treatment, criminal justice reform and on Capitol Hill.