Alameda County Drug Take-Back Program Upheld

In 2012, Alameda County, CA, enacted a local ordinance requiring the pharmaceutical industry to provide funding to support the County’s medication take-back efforts. Drug take back programs allow individuals to dispose of unused medications in a central, secure location. The programs seek to keep unwanted, expired, or unneeded drugs from being introduced into our nation’s water supply through flushing, out of the hands of individuals seeking to use them for recreation or illegal purposes, and to prevent accidental exposure to medications.

Alameda’s local ordinance is similar to some California state-wide laws, requiring paint and mattress producers to subsidize disposal of their products. Previously, the medication take-back ordinance was challenged on constitutional grounds, but was ultimately upheld by the lower courts. This week the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thereby keeping the ordinance intact and not disturbing the ruling of a federal appeals court, which had previously ruled in favor of Alameda.

Drug take-back programs have been growing in popularity over the past decade. The need for these take back programs is likely to continue, as a Mayo Clinic study released in June 2013 found that nearly 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, up from 48% in 2007-08. Other studies have concluded that nearly half of all medications, including both prescription and over-the-counter medications, end up being discarded. Many of these medications are flushed down the toilet, which has caused concern as prior studies have found measurable amounts of medication in the nation’s water supply. In fact, a U.S. Geological Survey study conducted in 2000 found measurable amounts of one or more medications in 80% of the water samples drawn from a network of 139 streams in 30 states.

Drug take-back programs have shown the need for providing a venue for disposing of unwanted medications. During Alameda’s drug take-back event in September, the county collected nearly 800 pounds of pills in one day. A national effort led by the Drug Enforcement Administration also yielded impressive results. Nearly 309 tons of pills were collected during the 9th annual medication take back day in 2014.

Despite the apparent need, drug take-back programs can be quite costly for municipalities. Santa Barbara, CA, recently passed an ordinance similar to Alameda’s. The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department has been managing ‘Operation Medicine Cabinet,’ a drug take back program started in 2010; in the five years since  the program began, the county estimates that it has collected nearly 32,400 pounds of medication at a cost of roughly $172,000. Similarly, San Mateo County, CA, estimated the annual cost of its drug take back program at approximately $250,000 per year. In May 2015, San Mateo County became the fourth municipality in the country to pass an ordinance mandating the pharmaceutical industry to provide funds to support a drug take-back program.

These legal developments seemingly leave the door open for municipalities to adopt similar ordinances requiring the pharmaceutical industry to subsidize local drug take-back programs. Given the cash-strapped status of many jurisdictions, it is likely many new ordinances will be enacted in the near future.

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About Andy Roszak

Andrew Roszak serves as the Senior Director for Environmental Health, Pandemic Preparedness and Catastrophic Response at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). Twitter: @AndyRoszak

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