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Opinion: ‘Legal heroin’ in our medicine cabinets

Americans are in the throes of the most fatal drug crisis in our country’s recorded history, with 52 people fatally overdosing on prescription opioid every day. Most of their stories began on a prescription pad, forcing prescribers to examine how they treat pain. But as prescribing habits shift, and Americans begin to rid their bodies of these highly addictive medicines, a new issue continues emerging.

We are struggling to get opioids out of our medicine cabinets. Here in the Chicago area, the problem is particularly serious.


In Cook County alone, prescription drug misuse killed 153 people and was responsible for 4,915 emergency room admissions in 2013. This epidemic has been fueled by excessive prescribing. Our bathrooms have become apothecaries where family and friends have easy access to opioids – essentially legal heroin.

We are naïve to think no one will take advantage of that easy access. Three in four people who abuse prescription opioids get the drugs, or steal them, from friends or family. Yet, there are few options to get rid of the medications. Flushing them down the toilet and throwing them in the trash harms the environment. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals have been detected in the water and aquatic life in and around Cook County.

There is a growing need for safe disposal options. In March, Cook County commissioners introduced a Safe Disposal of Pharmaceuticals ordinance that would establish one prescription drug take-back site per every 20,000 residents. Currently there are 89 collection sites for 2.5 million people – one for every 59,000 residents. The ordinance was deferred by the county board on Wednesday but could come up for a vote in November.

Establishing more take back locations throughout Cook County — typically a box anchored outside a building or in a lobby — is a natural next step toward ending opioid abuse here, and measures like these are tragically overdue. Most of Cook County is a drug collection desert. While North Shore communities have as many as 13 collection sites, many areas of Chicago have only one place to give back unused pills.

Meanwhile, 10 in every 1,000 Illinoisans are grappling with opioid addiction, and a new addiction begins every single day.

The absence of collection sites is just one of many glaring gaps in Illinois’ strategy to reduce opioid misuse, not just in Cook County but across the state. A recent National Safety Council report, noted that Illinois is failing to protect its residents from the opioid crisis because the state lacks mandatory prescriber education and opioid prescribing guidelines, has not passed legislation to shutter pill mills and needs to expand access to medication-assisted treatment.

Each of these actions would be more effective if opioid users understood the importance of getting rid of their pills, and could do so easily.

Some of the necessary actions will take time to implement, such as requiring prescriber education and adopting prescribing guidelines. However, creating more disposal sites will have an immediate impact on saving lives. Supply and demand are not mutually exclusive. We must cut one to control the other.

Ending Chicago’s prescription opioid epidemic is a complex task that will require cooperation from several different entities. Doctors, lawmakers, law enforcement and public health professionals all have important roles to play.

The Land of Lincoln prides itself on strong communities that look out for their residents. Ensuring that prescription painkillers and other excess pills are properly disposed of will go a long way toward advancing that goal.

Deborah A.P. Hersman is president and CEO of the Itasca-based National Safety Council.

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