It's an alarming trend gauged in numbers, witnessed by experts, law enforcement officers and prosecutors, and underscored in tragedy, like the death last August from a methadone overdose of Frank Eck, a National Guard veteran from Scandia.
Teens and young adults are abusing prescription drugs as never before.
"We have way, way too many contacts with young folks that are involved in the illegal use of prescribed medications," said Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton, who described the urgency of the problem to the County Board last week.
As the problem of prescription drug abuse has grown, so has Washington County's efforts to safely get those medications out of circulation if they are no longer being used for their intended purpose.
The latest step is adding two new collection sites in Cottage Grove and Forest Lake, where the county has set up secure collection boxes for potentially dangerous, expired, unused, over-the-counter and unwanted prescription drugs so that they can be safely destroyed. The service is free and anonymous, no questions asked. Used syringes can't be accepted.
The original collection site at the county Law Enforcement Center in Stillwater, at 15015 62nd St. N., opened in April and will remain in service.
The two new collection sites have been opened in Washington County service centers in Cottage Grove, at 13000 Ravine Parkway S., and at 19995 Forest Lake Road N. in Forest Lake. All the collection boxes are available from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.
A fourth site, at the Washington County Service Center in Woodbury, will likely be added later this spring or in early summer, Hutton said. More could be added as logistics are worked out.
The boxes must be emptied daily by a deputy, who must follow a strict chain-of-custody protocol similar to that followed when handling other contraband, Hutton said.
The need for the service is clear. The Sheriff's Office led several prescription drug take-back events in recent years that were "wildly successful," Hutton said. That led to the first permanent collection site, which averages 28 users a week who have filled 57 barrels full of unused drugs.
About 10 percent of the pharmaceuticals dispensed nationwide are controlled substances, according to the Minnesota Health Department -- things like anabolic steroids, narcotics, stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens. They are controlled because of their potential for abuse and physical and psychological dependence.
Although patients can possess controlled substances, they cannot lawfully transfer a controlled substance to another person or entity for any purpose. So it is left to law enforcement agencies to collect them for safe and proper disposal.
Medicines left in homes are highly susceptible to diversion, misuse, theft and abuse, Hutton said. Simply flushing them poses potential harm to people, along with fish and other wildlife.
Prescription drug abuse in the United States is increasing, as are accidental poisoning and overdoses, Hutton said, and studies show that most abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from home medicine cabinets.
Abuse of prescription medicine leads to other more dangerous drugs, Hutton said, most significantly heroin -- which now can actually be bought more cheaply on the streets than prescription medications.
In the Minnesota Health Department's most recent triennial survey of sixth-, ninth- and 12th-graders, taken in 2010, researchers found that alcohol was the most abused substance followed by marijuana. Various prescription drugs -- pain relievers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, and ADHD drugs such as Ritalin -- were reported as the next most used substances by both ninth- and 12th-graders.
Jim Anderson 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson
Stillwater Law Enforcement Center, 15015 62nd St. N.
Cottage Grove Service Center, 13000 Ravine Parkway S.
Forest Lake Service Center, 19995 Forest Lake Road N.
Planned for spring opening
Woodbury Service Center, 2150 Radio Drive