If you bring your pills back to the pharmacy where you got them, you may well get a firm refusal and a flyer directing you to the Humboldt Waste Management Authority. HWMA does accept most medications, if they've been repackaged in a clear plastic bag without identifying information. But they cannot accept any controlled substances, including opiates, steroids and others that have made the DEA's list
Brent Whitener, operations manager at HWMA, says he "loses money" on the medications that he does accept. Unlike aluminum or glass, there is no (legal) resale market for medications. But the facility continues to accept them because Whitener doesn't want them to end up in the waterways via the sewer, or decomposition in landfills. When enough have accumulated at the plant, they are incinerated. A few times a year, HWMA will host a drop-off day where people can bring their medications, and a law enforcement officer will stand by to book controlled substances in as evidence. Whitener says that every time this happens, 12 to 20 pounds of pills go into the hands of law enforcement.
"I’m trying to get out of the business," he says. "The DEA is making it extremely difficult to accept medications just because, inadvertently, controlled substances may be in there."
Whitener says pharmaceutical manufacturers should pay for the disposal of their products. Currently, the DEA recommends putting medications in a bag with kitty litter or coffee grounds before putting them in the garbage. Whitener says this is an ineffective idea and only ends with toxic substances in the wastestream and waterstreams. In the meantime, he has worked with the county to get medication disposal bins installed where people can bring their controlled substances.
The bins, which will feature a double lock system, will be installed in two Eureka locations where people can safely and anonymously bring their controlled substances for disposal. The cost of purchasing the bins came from a Drug Free Communities grant and a California Healthcare Foundation grant, in partnership with the Regional Opioid Safety Coalition, is covering the pickup and disposal costs. The total cost was $9,490.
Michael Weiss, program services coordinator at the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, says Humboldt Allies for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) "has been working for the last six months to identify community partners and locations for medication disposal bins."
"Opioid safety and overdose prevention are top issues in Humboldt County," he adds in an email. " DHHS Public Health’s Community Health Assessment identifies drugs and alcohol as top causes of preventable morbidity and mortality, and overdose deaths are a contributor to this. Currently there is no location for the disposal of controlled substances in Humboldt County, and providing one will reduce the availability of these medications in the community."
While ASAP continues to search for someone to pick up and dispose of the drugs, Whitener says re-educating the public will be a crucial step in fixing this gap.
"The battle I’m fighting is that I’ve taught people in the county that you can take your medications to me," he says.
For now, don't.
... the short answer is, you can't. Not if they're opiates, or another controlled substance. Despite a growing local and national epidemic of prescription pill abuse, stringent guidelines from the Drug Enforcement Administration have made it nearly impossible for those in Humboldt who want to dispose of their leftover medications to do the right thing.