Editor’s Note: The Times Record continues its series of reports on prescription drug abuse.
FORT SMITH — The Drug Enforcement Administration will sponsor its next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day on Saturday, but in Arkansas’ second-largest city, every day is a take-back day.
That’s because the Fort Smith Police Department is one of many agencies across the state that offer a permanent drop box for expired or unwanted medications. Residents can use the drop box anonymously and free of red tape, 24 hours a day, and the police department will make sure the drugs are safely destroyed.
Fort Smith police Cpl. Paul Smith, local coordinator for the national event, said the police station will likely receive 10 to 40 pounds of medications Saturday. The twice-yearly take-back day is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"We’ve had a pretty good response over the past couple of years," Smith said. Discarded medications are stored in the evidence vault until the state police pick them up and transport them to Pine Bluff for incineration.
On all other days, according to Narcotics Division Capt. Jamie Hammond, evidence technician Ricky Brooks sees to the disposal of the drugs locally.
"There are no forms to fill; you don’t have to call ahead or come talk to anybody. We don’t care who you are; just come in anytime, and drop off your medications right here in the lobby," Hammond said.
"We do prefer they bring in prescription drugs. Sometimes people bring in expired cough medications and eye drops, which is all right too, but what this is targeting is the oxys and other controlled substances," he added, referring to commonly abused painkillers such as oxycodone.
In one recent case, a resident called ahead because he needed to drop off several garbage bags full of expired medications dating to the 1980s after a family member died of a long-term illness. Hammond said the drop box would not have accommodated such a large quantity, and calling ahead was the safe thing to do.
Brooks, who unlocks the drop box daily, said the box usually contains a little something every day, and a lot on other days.
"Sometimes, it’s so full it’s hard to get open. It practically explodes when you unlock it," he said.
Brooks said he coordinates disposal of the drugs with a local hospital and attends every incineration, which involves heating the drugs to 300 degrees, removing biohazards and grinding the remains.
According to state Drug Director Fran Flener, Arkansas has collected 23½ tons of unwanted drugs, or about 66 million pills, over the five previous DEA take-back days since September 2010.
Pointing to statistics from the annual Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment, she believes the take-backs have brought on a significant drop in prescription drug abuse by young people.
"Twenty-three tons has got to make a difference," she said.
Steve Varady, policy coordinator for Flener’s office at the Department of Human Services, said incineration protects the environment while eliminating access to the most-abused drugs.
The Crawford County Sheriff’s Office and Van Buren Police Department also have permanent drop boxes. Other permanent and special drop-off sites can be found on the Arkansas Takeback website.