The latest drug abuse prevention tool at the disposal of law enforcement in Dakota County is, in fact, a disposal.

A metal bin outside the county judicial center in Hastings is being used to collect hundreds of pounds of unwanted prescription drugs such as Xanax, Oxycontin and other medications that kids can get hooked on.

Dakota is the latest county to start such a program, designed not only to cut off the supply and temptation to misuse prescription drugs but also stop environmental issues that arise when such meds are flushed down toilets and into the sewer and water systems.

"I have heard nothing but rave reviews," said Selina Kolsrud of the Scott County attorney's office, who is the contact person for the Scott County drug take-back program. "It's been easy. The idea is to get them off the street."

The programs were started after law enforcement locally and nationally noticed an increase in the number of youths abusing prescription drugs taken from their parents' medicine cabinets or purchased on the street.

The drug take-back programs began in Chisago County two years ago in what was believed to be the first program of its kind in the nation.

"It's been amazing," said Chisago County Sheriff's deputy Josh Olds, who helped run the program.

Olds said that last year the Sheriff's Office collected more than 1,500 pounds of medications and narcotics from the three boxes it has around the county, in in Centerville, North Branch and Rush City.

'A six-inch putt'

The drug take-back programs have spread slowly, including most recently in Scott County last year and, now, the pilot program in Dakota County.

Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows started his program on a trial basis with three of the boxes in selected locations, including in Burnsville and West St. Paul.

Since the start of the year the boxes have collected more than 1,200 pounds of prescription medications, Bellows said.

"It's been a very successful program," said Bellows, who said he would like to see the program become permanent and be expanded to every major city in the county by placing a box at each police department. That is the model that Scott County is following.

"It's a six-inch putt," Bellows said. "The cities report that they get quite a few calls from citizens wondering where they can drop this stuff off."

Bellows estimates it would cost less than $10,000 to expand the program, with much of the cost involving the securing and transportation of the medications for disposal.

"One at each police department would be good," Bellows said. "It would create more convenience."

Wait and see attitude

Thus far, Dakota County officials are taking more of a wait-and-see approach, wanting more analysis and wanting the pilot program to complete its one-year trial before making a decision, said Dakota County Administrator Brandt Richardson.

"We're researching a number of policy questions," Richardson said. "I know we've had good collection results so far."

Among the issues that still need to be addressed, Richardson said, is whether the county needs so many boxes and whether this is the best way to address prescription medication abuse.

He noted that the federal government apparently is reviewing its drug policies, in part to place a higher emphasis on prescription medication abuse. If new programs come out of that, Richardson said, the county would want to coordinate its efforts with that.

The spread of the program has perhaps been slowed by the cost involved in securely transporting the collected items for disposal -- most agencies have been paying thousands of dollars for transport and disposal. Law enforcement must now go to Illinois or to the Alexandria area, where the nearest incinerators licensed to dispose of such narcotics are located, law enforcement officials said. But that could change soon.

In late June, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ruled that it will allow the 3M company to take in and burn, free of charge, hazardous waste such as prescription medications and narcotics from law enforcement agencies as part of an overall plan by the company to expand its incineration business in Cottage Grove.

Richardson said the reduced costs of using the 3M incinerator would be "positive factor" in expanding the program, but would not necessarily be the sole determinant.

Bellows hopes this will serve as an impetus for Dakota County to expand its operation.

"It will be very advantageous for us," he said. "We would be taking a 15-minute ride [to dispose] instead of a four- to five-hour drive. Let's just get them out of your cabinets and out of the hands of your kids."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281