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As opiate epidemic widens, prescription drugs turned in voluntarily

Four out of five heroin abusers start with prescription drugs.

Oftentimes, the medications are taken from family members, or friends, from a medicine cabinet in the home.

That’s why events such as Saturday’s national drug drop-off day are important in helping to keep powerful, addictive medications out of the hands of users, experts say.

“I would say that for every pill that is handed in, potentially, a life is being saved. Not just because every pill could represent an overdose or death, but because each pill potentially puts the user on a path that could end in dependence or death,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said before Saturday’s events.

Last year, prescription medications and other medicines weighing 17,000 pounds were collected at drop-off locations throughout Western New York, according to John P. Flickinger, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Buffalo office resident agent in charge.

“In the last 10 years, our area has led New York State in the amount of prescription drugs turned in,” he said.

The drug collection events held at sites throughout the region Saturday, along with an opiate awareness and memorial walk held at SUNY Buffalo State, came as the opioid crisis tightens its grip on Erie County.

As many as 264 people died from heroin and prescription painkiller overdoses last year in the county, a figure that will be confirmed by toxicology testing.

Overdose deaths this year are on pace to reach more than 500.

Robin Ebling’s youngest son, Aaron, died July 1 at age 24 from an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl.

“It takes their future,” Ebling said as she walked in a group of nine relatives and two dogs to remember her son. All wore Aaron’s picture pinned to a shirt, sweater or jacket.

The epidemic cuts across the county. The number of suburban and rural residents who die from overdoses is nearly equal to the number of city residents, and the number of women dying of overdoses is nearly equal to the number of men, health officials said.

“This is an equal-opportunity epidemic,” William Wieczorek, director of the Institute for Community Health Promotion at Buffalo State, said before the walk.

It’s no coincidence that participants in the opiate awareness and memorial walk gathered just steps from the Buffalo State collection site for the DEA’s Prescription Drug Take Back Day.

The federal agency points out four out of five heroin users get their start with prescription drugs, often obtaining the medication from family members or acquaintances. The agency decided to begin a drug take-back program six years ago. On the previous 10 days, between September 2010 and last September, the events collected 5.5 million pounds of drugs.

Opiates are a national problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 24,500 people died in 2014 from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses.

The walk

The walk drew about 75 people who had lost a loved one to addiction or who had a family member still battling drugs.

Ebling was the one who found her son, Aaron, dead in his bed.

After his family removed him from life support, they donated his organs because they thought that’s what he would have wanted.

His mother is left to try to find, as she put it, the good in each day.

“There’s something I need to do. I don’t know what it is yet to help stop this,” she said. “Too many people are losing their loved ones. Their children. Their brothers or sisters. Their friends.”

Esmeralda Padilla, pastor of the Emmanuel Pentecostal Church in Riverside, has seen opiate addiction touch her family and her congregation. She said too many young people in their 20s, or 30s, have struggled and failed to overcome opiates, including the man whose funeral service she led recently. He left behind four children when he died at 30.

“They couldn’t find a way out, or they thought there was no hope. Others thought that they could come out, and ended up caged in their drugs, in their addiction,” said Padilla, with her daughter, Abigail, serving as translator.

The drop-off

Across the quad, at the drop-off event, D’Youville College and University at Buffalo pharmacy students used bright yellow plastic buckets to collect the bottles and bags of pills from the drivers.

Students then opened the bottles and sorted the pills by whether they are controlled – powerful painkillers such as hydrocodone or Percocet – or non-controlled substances before putting them in large cardboard boxes lined with plastic. The boxes, when filled, were sealed with duct tape. The campus site, one of 12 in Erie County and North Tonawanda, collected 108 pounds of medication in four hours on Saturday from about 90 cars, said Jessica Isaac, a clinical community pharmacist who helped oversee the event.

“You just don’t want to take the chance,” said Kevin Hosey, who drove up with his wife, Val Dunne.

They dropped off Adderall, Paxil and hydrocodone that Dunne had been prescribed and hydrocodone, Oxycontin and Lortab that Hosey’s mother had been prescribed for knee pain.

They went to the drug drop-off events to dispose of their medication, after finding out that flushed medications can get into area waterways.

Once police collect the drugs and hypodermic needles from the drop-off sites, they are stored under lock and key at police facilities and later transported to Niagara Falls for incineration at Covanta, a waste-to-energy operation.

Buffalo storage room

To grasp the immensity of how many opiates and opioids people voluntarily turn over to authorities, a visit to the storage room at Buffalo Police Headquarters provides an eye-popping view of how much goes unused.

Hochul, the United States attorney, stopped by late last week after a news conference to promote Saturday’s countywide drop-off program.

Buffalo Police Lt. Steve Nichols unlocked two sets of doors to show Hochul five months’ worth of collections from drop-off boxes at city district police stations. There sat 18 55-gallon drums stuffed with an estimated 3,000 pounds of medications and hypodermic needles.

“Visually, this tells me the answer to the question of whether we have an overprescribing problem in Western New York,” Hochul said.

The drums had everything from an unused bottle of morphine to countless containers of prescription pain pills.

“It looks like candy,” Nichols said, holding up a clear plastic box of multicolored pills. “God forbid a child should get a hold of it.”

Nichols makes his rounds every week at the city’s five district stations, where two free-standing metal containers that look like mailboxes – one for medications, the other for needles - sit in the lobbies.

“I collect 100 pounds to 150 pounds of discarded drugs and needles on a weekly basis,” Nichols said.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda says the massive amounts of anonymously surrendered drugs offer further proof of why so many people get hooked on drugs.

“We are past the epidemic level. We are now in crisis mode with people dying every day,” Derenda said.

The large quantities of collected drugs also suggests that some doctors still have not gotten the message that they should not be prescribing “hefty amounts” of painkillers, Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said.

“Unfortunately part of our culture wants instant relief from minor pain. Physicians have to own this, but so do consumers,” she said. “Almost always, a three-day supply of prescription pain medication is enough.”