Drop-off sites aid LI's prescription drug-abuse war

Acetaminophen reigns as one of the most popular

Acetaminophen reigns as one of the most popular painkillers ever, despite sometimes getting bad press. (Dec. 19, 2011)

Two Suffolk County police officers were on hand when a bin was set up inside the local YMCA on a Saturday several months ago.

The bin is a central player in a "Shed the Meds" program, sponsored in various places around Huntington by state Sen. Carl Marcellino, Suffolk police and a local drugstore.

The bin is so big. And most prescription drugs seem to come in small containers. "There's no way that thing is going to get filled," one onlooker said aloud.

"Oh yes, it will," Marcellino predicted, as one officer nodded in agreement. Less than an hour later, the container, indeed, was full -- and still, residents came by to drop off unused or expired prescription drugs.

It's been almost a year since Long Island reeled in horror at the Father's Day murder of four employees and customers at Haven Drugs in Medford during a robbery for drugs.

The senseless act pushed the issue of prescription drug abuse front and center. The death, months later, of John Capano, an off-duty agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who was killed after being mistaken for a robber who had grabbed cash and prescription drugs at Charlie's Family Pharmacy in Seaford, added to a sense of urgency in dealing with prescription drug abuse.

Who knew, last Father's Day, that Suffolk County had seen a 413 percent increase in DWI arrests involving prescription drugs over a 10-year period?

Who would have conceived, just 12 months ago, that prescription drugs were involved in almost half of all DWI charges in Suffolk in 2011, or that arrests for sale of controlled prescription drugs had increased an astonishing 878 percent over the same period?

Last year alone, there were 231 overdose deaths from controlled substances in Suffolk, where most of Long Island's problems with prescription drug abuse appear to be centered; 174 -- 75 percent -- of those deaths were from opioid analgesics.

The numbers, from a Suffolk County special grand jury report released in April, are also big. So too were the number of suspects -- 98 -- arrested on Long Island and in New York City by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local police seeking to curb the illegal distribution of painkillers.

But enforcement, as officials acknowledge, is not enough.

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced an agreement with state legislative leaders on a proposal that would make New York State a leader in strengthening oversight of prescription drugs to help curb a black market fueled by addiction and doctor shopping.

Officials -- smart enough to recognize that the home medicine cabinet as a potential source of prescription abuse, too -- included a plan to designate police stations around the state as drop-off sites for expired and unused drugs as part of the reform package.

That's important. Because it gives every resident shocked by what happened in Medford and Seaford a chance to join the fight.

"Suffolk County was a leader in helping residents get these drugs out of medicine cabinets and Nassau followed," state Sen. Kemp Hannon, chair of the Senate's health committee, said Wednesday. "I once saw a man come in with two bags of lidocaine he said he got from his mother."

In Huntington, some people had cleared old antibiotics from their medicine cabinets. One woman dumped no-longer-needed cancer-treatment-related drugs; one man dropped off medications once used by a recently deceased relative.

Each time, the drugs were bagged and secured by Suffolk police, who would take them away to be cataloged and later destroyed.

The bin's contents -- and yes, they came to include unused OxyContin and other opioid tablets -- were emptied once. And again.