All these medications were disposed of in one of the DEA-sponsored medication take-back days in Colorado.

Across Colorado, law enforcement agencies are filling up storage rooms with unwanted prescription medications.The glut is the legacy of a Drug Enforcement Agency program that was set up to stem prescription abuse back in 2011, when the White House identified proper medication disposal as one of four major ways to reduce the abuse.

But many of Colorado’s law enforcement agencies haven’t disposed of a single pill since Sept. 27, 2014, when federal money went away.

It used to be the DEA paid for drug disposal as part of its take-back program. And at its height, the program involved more than 100 agencies in Colorado

From Sept. 2010 to Sept. 2014, the DEA sponsored biannual take-back days at local law enforcement agencies where they collected and disposed of prescription medications. 

(CPR/Megan Arellano)

But DEA financial support ended last fall when new rules intended to get pharmacies to start accepting unwanted medications went into effectThat left most law-enforcement agencies with a choice: continue to accept unwanted medications or close up shop. Some, like the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, continued to accept medications and even hold their own take-back days.

“The need for us to continue to allow the public to surrender their unwanted pharmaceuticals is important. It’s part of our public service,” said Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office’s public information director, Jacki Kelley.

The cost to the department is “fairly insignificant, to be honest,” said Kelley. “Yes, there will some dollars that will be spent in order to do this in a safe and effective manner.” 

Others, like the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department, have been directing people to one of Colorado’s original 21 permanent take-back locations. 

For those permanent take-back locations, there’s only one EPA-approved disposal facility, about 35 miles from Denver, in Bennett to get rid of the drugs.

All these changes come at a time when the DEA was collecting as much as 40,000 pounds of unwanted medication per year.

Patchwork of approaches

So far, the organizations that the state has deemed “permanent” take-back locations have been left to themselves to figure out how to dispose of prescription drugs — or whether to get rid of them at all. Depending on who you ask, you get a different answer.