Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Stopping the Cycle of Opioid AddictionThe Important Role of Drug Drop Off Boxes and Prevention

By Catherine GoreyPublished June 18, 2018

Opioid addiction has been named an epidemic in America. Drug drop off programs adopted by retail pharmacy chains may be the key to increasing community awareness of the role we all play in enforcing safe medical practices.


The most recent health-related epidemic is not the typical viral or bacterial infection: addiction and related overdose deaths are now taking over 64,000 US lives per year, a statistic that is only increasing. The deathly condition starts with something that is likely given to all of us to improve our health: prescription drugs. The danger of these drugs lies in after they are done being used and sitting in medicine cabinets for teens and family members to abuse. Communal awareness of the issue and increasing the use of drug drop-off boxes are key steps to restricting access to these dangerous and highly addictive drugs.
According to JAMA, almost half of Americans use at least one prescription drug, with more than 10% taking five or more. The danger of this development lies in the prescription of strong pain medications: "We ended up, a few years ago, with approximately 9 billion individual pills- oxycodone and hydrocodone derivatives and other strong opioids- being prescribed in this country annually. [That's] equivalent to 30 strong opioid pills for every man, woman, and child in our country", Bertha Madras of Harvard Medical School. These 9 billion pills contributed to 40 US deaths every day caused by prescription painkillers and opioids becoming the #1 cause of overdose deaths.
The dangers of prescription painkiller abuse are also contributing to a new generation of heroin addicts. Heroin is chemically similar to these pills because they are both derivatives of the opium poppy; therefore, it is a cheap alternative to those addicted to the opiates found in the prescription medication. Because of this, 4/5 new heroin users get their start on prescription painkillers. Our youngest generation is increasingly susceptible to falling into this cycle, as many see prescription drugs are accessed through leftover prescriptions:1 in 4 teens have abused a prescription drug in their lifetime, and 2/3 of them get these pills for free from friends' or family's medicine cabinets.
While prescription painkillers are the primary lead in to heroin abuse, benzodiazepines (prescribed for anxiety disorders) and stimulants (prescribed for ADHD and related conditions) are gateways to prescription pain pills and then heroin. Teens that abuse these kinds of drugs are five times more likely to abuse pain medication.
Preventative and communal action is key in stopping the cycle of opioid addiction. Legislation passed by the Drug Enforcement Act in 2014 allowing for pharmacies to participate in drug take back programs. This regulation has lead to a recent increase in large-scale retailers providing safe drug disposal options. This development holds promise in raising communal awareness of the role that we all play in preventing drug abuse and addiction. CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Walmart are all important players in this new effort to take responsibility. CVS plans to install an additional 800 over the course of the next year and Walgreens is adding 900 drop off boxes nationally. Walmart is taking a different approach by beginning to offer a service called Dispose RX that dissolves excess pills. These proactive efforts are important because businesses are acknowledging their role in this institutional epidemic by taking vital preventative and educational steps in order to protect their consumers.