Fight against crime moves into medicine cabinet

Abby Goodnough / New York Times News Service /

BOSTON — Police departments have collected thousands of handguns through buyback programs. Now they want the contents of your medicine cabinet.

Opiate painkillers and other prescription drugs, officials say, are driving addiction and crime like never before. The crimes, and the severity of the U.S. drug abuse problem, have so vexed the authorities that they are calling on citizens to surrender old bottles of potent pills like Vicodin, Percocet and Xanax.

On Saturday, the police will set up drop-off stations at a Wal-mart in Pearland, Texas, a zoo in Wichita, Kan., a sports complex in Peoria, Ariz., and more than 4,000 other locations to oversee a prescription drug take-back program. Coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, it will be the first such effort with national scope.

The take-back day is being held as waves of data suggest the country’s prescription drug problem is vast and growing. In 17 states, deaths from drugs — prescription and illegal — now exceed those from vehicle accidents. The number of people seeking treatment for painkiller addiction jumped 400 percent from 1998 to 2008, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Law enforcement officials are combating a sharp rise in crime tied to prescription drugs.

“We’re seeing people desperately and aggressively trying to get their hands on these pills,” said Janet Mills, the attorney general in Maine. “Home invasions, robberies, assaults, homicides, thefts — all kinds of crimes are being linked to prescription drugs.”

In Harpswell, Maine, a masked man broke into the home of a 77-year-old woman in June, knocked her to the ground and snatched her Oxycontin pills at knifepoint. And in Hyannis, Mass., three men armed with a knife, a bat and a revolver broke into a home in 2008, bound the owner’s hands and feet with duct tape, and tore through drawers and cabinets until they found her husband’s Oxycontin.

In other states, the authorities say, pill thieves have infiltrated open houses.

“One will distract the Realtor,” said Matthew Murphy, assistant special agent in charge at the DEA’s New England field division in Boston, “while the other goes and rifles through the medicine cabinet looking for pain medication.”

Skeptics, pointing to the dearth of evidence that gun buybacks have reduced the gun crime rate, question whether even a national take-back effort will have much impact. And they question whether most people will bother to participate when the take-back programs, unlike the gun programs, do not offer a reward for turning in pills.

There is also the reality that many people intentionally hang on to pain or anxiety medicine for future use.

“They might say, ‘I’ll take back my Oxy but not my Vicodin,’” said Neale Adams, the district attorney in Aroostook County, Maine. He said “easily a third” of the indictments there were related to prescription drug trafficking and abuse.

The officials coordinating Saturday’s drug take-back program acknowledge that even with a few thousand drop-off points, it will capture but a tiny fraction of the addictive drugs lining the nation’s medicine cabinets. Nor will it address root causes of addiction, like the overprescribing of powerful drugs.

But Steve Bullock, the attorney general in Montana, said the program was a worthy tool, nonetheless.

“It raises the awareness that we tend to hoard these drugs and hang onto them,” he said. “And raising that awareness is one more step in dealing with the overall problem.”

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