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At MHS pharmacies, every day is ‘Drug Take Back Day’

Photo of empty pill bottles Bottles of emptied prescription drugs lie in a box during the Drug Take Back event hosted at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina (Photo by: Marine Corps Installations East).

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While April 24 has officially been designated National Drug Take Back Day by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), pharmacists across the Military Health System in recent years have been stressing that every day is a drug take back day.

That's because MHS pharmacies are outfitted with MedSafe medication disposal boxes, which can accept all pills, along with properly sealed powders, liquid medications and lotions, and dermal patches. MHS pharmacies also provide mail-in envelopes for medications.

"The bins are right there when you walk into the pharmacy," said U.S. Public Health Service Cmdr. Thien Nguyen, a pharmacist with the Market Management Branch of Pharmacy Operations for the Defense Health Agency. "We wanted to make sure that our beneficiaries knew that any time they were able to get through their medicine cabinets and put in their expired medications, or medications they don’t use anymore, they can bring it in to us any day."

And though National Drug Take Back Day continues to be an effective means of getting an important message out for law enforcement agencies throughout the United States, the MHS has not officially participated in the program since 2016, Nguyen said. The reason? She said MHS pharmacists never want to tell service members or beneficiaries to hang on to a box of prescription drugs and wait for a designated day.

"They can just drop it right off," she said. "Especially if it's a situation where a beneficiary feels like maybe someone in their household has the potential for misuse or abuse, and they want to make sure they get that medication out of the house as soon as possible. They can do it that very same day, to make it as efficient as possible."

Still, the advertising of National Drug Take Back Day and its usual designated hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is an effective reminder for civilian and military populations to take a good look not just in one's medicine cabinet, but in kitchen drawers and bedroom dressers, or even car glove compartments - anyplace that forgotten prescriptions might be hiding - and turn them in safely.

Slogans such as "Don't be the Dealer," and disturbing images such as a small child handling a bottle of dangerous pain killers have a way of reminding the public to take action sooner rather than later.

Unintended pings

There’s another important reason to take a close look at the fine print on medication labels that have been around for a while. Not only can others get ahold of dangerous substances, but there’s a chance that a medication might be used improperly by the very person it was prescribed to in the first place. For active-duty service members, this danger is especially acute.

According to a Department of Defense instruction  issued in June 2020 relating to technical procedures for the military’s drug abuse testing program, “prescriptions for substances included on Schedules II through V of Section 812 of Title 21, United States Code, will be considered expired 6 months after the most recent date of filling, as indicated on the prescription label.”

Said Nguyen: “Outside of that time frame, if the service member pings positive for a drug, they can’t say, ‘It’s because I have this prescription.’ Because if that prescription is older than six months, they’re going to know that doesn’t count — it’s no longer allowed.”

Nguyen noted the new DOD instruction was necessary because until then there had not been a sufficient, explicitly written policy addressing such a scenario.

Meanwhile, national results of the October 19, 2020, National Take Back Day were impressive. As they do every six months or so, thousands of law enforcement agencies took part, establishing 4,587 collection sites that culled nearly 493 tons of prescription drugs, the DEA reported. (Many of those police collection sites are permanent, too.)

National Drug Take Back Day “addresses a crucial public safety and public health issue,” the DEA states on its drug take back web site. “According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.7 million people misused prescription pain relievers, 4.9 million people misused prescription stimulants, and 5.9 million people misused prescription tranquilizers or sedatives in 2019. The survey also showed that a majority of misused prescription drugs were obtained from family and friends, often from the home medicine cabinet.”

At MHS facilities alone, Nguyen said that from January 2016 to December 2020, the DOD collected roughly 510,000 pounds of drugs for disposal through its collection receptacles and mail-back envelopes.

Details on the MHS’ Drug Take Back Program can be found here.

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