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Wellness Corner - Leftover Opiates in Your Home?


Wellness Corner - March 2016
Leftover Opiates in Your Home?

By Veronica Jordan, MD 

A report was released in January of this year that one in four Sonoma County residents was given a prescription for opiate medications in 2014. These controlled medications, commonly prescribed for pain, include acetaminophen-hydrocodone (Norco), acetaminophen-oxycodone (Percocet), morphine, fentanyl patches, and hydromorphone (Dilaudid), to name a few. There were 459,000 prescriptions for 126,000 of us in Sonoma County.

The problem is a national one. In 2014, a total of 10.3 million persons reported using prescription opioids non-medically (not for the intended use). There are many aspects of the opiate epidemic that are problematic, including emergency room utilization, unintentional overdoses, diversion, and more, but I want to focus on one part of the story that is too often overlooked: t​he leftovers.

My questions to all of us who received an opiate prescriptions any time in the past are these: 

  • Did you take them all?
  • If not, where are the leftover opiates now?
  • Are there any children who could access these dangerous medications?

As a family physician (and an occasional patient myself), I know too well that many of us are holding on to extra medication. Most commonly, we have leftover Norco that were originally prescribed for a wrist fracture, tooth extraction, or other surgery. Some may even have grandma’s liquid morphine prescribed at the end of her life. We think we are acting wisely, keeping the extra-- in case we (or someone we love) has some pain that may benefit from taking them. Frankly, this is not a good idea.

I implore you to discard these leftovers.

First, it’s illegal to give someone a prescription medication that was not intended for them. But, more importantly, these are dangerous substances-- particularly for children. I consider them comparable to having an unsecured loaded firearm in your home.  Maybe you think I’m overstating the risk, but statistically it’s more likely that your child will have access to a dangerous opiate than a gun.

 Here is why: 

  • 24% of high school students nationwide have tried a prescription opiate recreationally
  • 27% think prescription drugs are safer than street drugs
  • 56% of kids said they got their drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinet; half of parents admit they are not locked up
  • 20% of parents gave their kid a medication that wasn’t prescribed for them
  • Teens are at higher risk of developing addiction disorder than adults (nine out of 10 people who meet criteria for addiction to any substance started using before age 18)
  • People who start using addictive substance before age 15 are 6½ times as likely to develop a substance use disorder as those who delay until age 21 or older
  • A recent paper in the NEJM reported a startling association between prescription opioids and heroin, including a 40 times risk for people to use heroin if they have used prescription opiates. Also 70.5% of people using heroin report using opiates before they used heroin
  1. Flush them down the toilet (unfortunately, this is the actual recommended action by the US DEA, see their website for more recommendations). I know it sounds crazy, but it is currently considered the safest way to protect our children and others at risk of misuse or accidental overdose. The FDA recommends you do this for most opiates.
  2. National Controlled Substance Day is sponsored by the Federal Government and is scheduled this year to be April 30, 2016, local locations yet to be determined. Check the website: h​ttp:// f​or more information on where you can leave your medications.
  3. Less safe but easiest: take your leftover medications out of their prescription bottles, add noxious substance (e.g. coffee grounds, kitty litter, dirty diapers), place in sealed plastic bag in your household trash. Dispose of medicine containers separately.

Please, don’t delay.




Please see the SafeMed Disposal program in Sonoma County.  Lots of great, free locations to get rid of unused medications!

The toilet, while recommended by the DEA is not recommended locally as our waste treatment systems are not designed to treat medications specifically.

Thank you,

James A. Hiller
Environmental Services Technician
City of Petaluma

D: (707) 778-4409 F: (707) 656-4067