WILLMAR -- During the first year the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office operated a drop box for unused and unneeded prescription and over-the-counter drugs, nearly 1,000 pounds of drugs were collected.
Officials say that's 1,000 pounds of medications that might otherwise have gone into the environment -- or into the hands of children and adults for potential misuse.
"This is such a good thing for our community," said Laura Daak, coordinator of the Kandiyohi County Drug-Free Communities Coalition, which worked with the Sheriff's Office to implement the "Take it to the Box" program.
"Overall it's been a very successful program," she said. "Obviously the community is using it."
The presence of the drop box, which was installed in March 2011 in the lobby of the Kandiyohi County Law Enforcement Building, underscores growing national attention to the problem of prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse. The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that more Americans abuse prescription drugs than the number of those using heroin, cocaine and hallucinogens combined.
Medications also are a leading cause of accidental poisonings among children 6 and younger, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Misuse of prescription drugs is an issue the public often doesn't recognize, Daak said. "They think prescription drugs are safer because they're prescribed by a doctor, and that's not true. If they're abused, they can be as dangerous as street drugs."
Nationwide, take-back programs have removed and safely disposed of nearly 500 tons of leftover, unwanted or expired prescription drugs in the past year.
Drop boxes such as the one at the Law Enforcement Center extend this effort by making safe drug disposal available year round.
"We wanted to have it 24-7 for people to have at their convenience," Daak said.
"This is something that will be here for a long time," agreed Dan Hartog, Kandiyohi County Sheriff.
Few days go by without at least a few prescription or over-the-counter drugs brought to the drop box, Hartog said.
"It's being used," he said. "We're seeing everything from vitamins to major painkillers. All kinds of different drugs are being brought in."
The "Take it to the Box" program doesn't accept needles but it takes everything else, including veterinary drugs and illegal drugs. Drop-offs can be done anonymously.
For every bottle of leftover pills placed in the drop box, it's one less opportunity for those pills to be diverted and possibly misused, Hartog said. "Anytime you remove the opportunity, it saves a lot of headaches."
The Sheriff's Office follows a detailed process for managing the drop box. Drugs are removed daily from the locked box and placed in a sealed container in an evidence room. From there, they're transported to an incineration facility for disposal. As one of the requirements for its Minnesota Pollution Control Agency permit to accept leftover prescription drugs, the Sheriff's Office also must document and report how many pounds of medication it receives and disposes of.
"It does take some staff time to deal with the process, but in the long run I think it's well worth it," Hartog said.
The Drug-Free Communities Coalition has been hosting a year-long campaign to raise local awareness of prescription drug abuse and the drop box service. The campaign wraps up this week with a final push of advertising, including fliers being distributed to pharmacies to hand out to their customers.
"We want people to clean out their medicine cabinets," Daak said. "It's for the safety and wellness of their own family."
Hartog sees more awareness of the issue than there used to be. And more counties are talking about implementing their own prescription drug drop boxes, he said. "There has been more education out there on the use of prescription drugs. ... The more information gets out there, the better off everybody will be."