Washington County has found a permanent solution for home medicine cabinets crammed with unused and often expired prescription drugs.

Starting Monday, the county will provide a collection box at the Sheriff's Office in Stillwater with hopes of diverting hundreds of pounds of medications that are falling into the wrong hands.

Sheriff Bill Hutton said the "Take It to the Box" campaign strikes back at a growing problem with overdoses, street sales and kids' experiments with dangerous drugs readily available to them.

"Think about where these end up," Hutton told the County Board last week.

The sheriff said some doctors overprescribe drugs, half of them now are consumed by people whose names aren't on the prescriptions, and intentional abuse becomes a "gateway to heroin," he told commissioners.

Common drugs in take-backs include the male stimulant Viagra and the narcotic pain reliever OxyContin, which has been stolen in a rash of pharmacy robberies in Minneapolis in recent weeks.

A Washington County drug "take back" last fall -- a weekend event where residents dropped off unused drugs and over-the-counter medications to law enforcement officers at the Government Center in Stillwater -- netted a collection weighing 339 pounds. A similar program in Ramsey County over 12 weeks recently collected 1,000 pounds, Hutton said.

Unused drugs also create other serious problems, said Lowell Johnson, the county's public health manager and Hutton's partner in the campaign.

"Our environment is at stake here as well," he said. "People used to think we could flush it away. There is no 'away.'"

Residents will find the new permanent collection site in the lobby of the Sheriff's Office at the Government Center. The box will be locked and monitored and only deputies will transfer the drugs to an incineration site in Alexandria, Minn., Hutton said.

"We are careful about the chain of custody," Johnson said, referring to thieves looking to support drug habits. "This could look very appealing to somebody. We want to make sure it's safety and security first."

The county will pay about $18,000 a year for disposal costs, which Hutton said was comparable to what other metro counties pay. Money will come from the county's environmental fund, a charge assessed to residents and businesses for waste disposal.

The county plans to open permanent collection sites at its regional service centers in Forest Lake and Cottage Grove, Johnson said, but hasn't decided when. Drugs also will be collected at the county's Environmental Center in Woodbury at a future date, he said.

The county's final weekend drug collection will be April 28 in the south parking lot of the Government Center. Donations at that event and the permanent collection boxes remain "no questions asked," Hutton said.

Previous collections have shown evidence of people discarding years of prescription drugs that were no doubt in reach of anybody who wanted them, Hutton said.

"We have medications that date back to the '90s at our givebacks," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles