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Abuse, theft of prescription drugs on the rise, ND attorney general says

FNS Photo by Mike Nowatzki North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem stands in his office beside bags full of unused and expired prescription drugs that were collected in about four hours Friday at the Capitol in Bismarck as part of the state’s Take Back program.

BISMARCK – Prescription drug abuse and theft are on the rise in North Dakota as children and thieves increasingly hunt for unused medications in medicine cabinets and bathroom drawers, with some burglars going so far as to target homes of the recently deceased, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said.

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Stenehjem outlined the problem Friday to drive home the importance of the state’s prescription drug Take Back program, which has collected and destroyed 6,620 pounds – more than 3.3 tons – of unused or expired medications since it began in December 2009.

“This program has been enormously popular here,” he said at the Capitol.

Stenehjem announced four new drug collection sites --  including one at the Cass County Sheriff’s Office in Fargo -- in advance of National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day today.

Prescription drugs are the third-most-abused drug among North Dakota high school students after alcohol and marijuana, Stenehjem said.

Eleven percent of students who answered the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported taking over-the-counter drugs to get high one or more times, while 18 percent admitted taking Oxycontin, hydrocodone, Xanax or other prescriptions drugs without a doctor’s prescription, he said.

Seventy percent of students say they get the drugs from family or friends, he said.

“Very often these medications are simply put in the back of the drawer in the bathroom or the medicine cabinet, and there they sit for years forgotten,” he said. “And you don’t even necessarily know that somebody might have come along and diverted them.”

Realtors planning open houses have been advised to secure medications in the home beforehand, Stenehjem said, “because there are instances where we know that people have gone pretending they’re looking for a house and actually are going to root through the medicine cabinets.”

Funeral directors have received similar advice because oftentimes people who die following a lengthy illness have a lot of medications, Stenehjem said.

“And we don’t want those homes targeted,” he said. “We’ve alerted them to make sure that the family knows right away one of the things on the checklist is to consider taking those medications and dropping them off at the receptacle.”

The 24/7 drop-off program allows people to dump their unused or expired pills or bottled liquid medicine into a blue receptacle at a law enforcement center. Stenehjem said they can dump the pills out of the bottle or peel the label off if they are worried about their identity being known.

“Because we don’t care who they come from and what they are. We just want to provide a safe, effective way to get rid of them,” he said.

Mark Sayler, chief agent with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, said one woman even brought her dog medications.

BCI agents collect sleeves of the discarded medications from local law enforcement agencies and haul them to Fargo to be incinerated by North Dakota State University’s pharmacy college. Last month, they burned 1,000 pounds of drugs collected over just five months, Stenehjem said.

The four new drop-off sites bring the program’s total to 34 locations in 30 counties, reaching more than 90 percent of the state’s population, he said. In addition to the Cass County site, the McLean County Sheriff’s Office has two of the new sites – one in Garrison and one in Washburn – and the Emmons County Sheriff’s Office in Linton has the other new site.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.