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Hernando County Sheriff's Office to collect unwanted medications March 28

Off the cuff, the longtime Hernando sheriff's captain can tick off a number of recent cases involving the abuse or illegal use of prescription drugs.

There was the couple accused of conspiring to sell painkillers through the wife's job with a local doctor. The man who was caught trying to sneak pills into the county jail. And, at least once a week, there's usually an overdose.

But the worst case might have come in August, when a Spring Hill man allegedly gave his 15-year-old son a cocktail of powerful prescription drugs to show him "how to party right." The boy later died of an accidental overdose.

"We see a lot of bad things," Capt. Mike Walker said. "But that one was up there."

With those troubling cases weighing heavily on their minds, Walker and other law enforcement officials have announced the launch of Operation Medicine Cabinet, a program designed to arrange for the voluntary collection of expired, unused or unwanted prescription medications.

The Sheriff's Office plans to set up two dropoff locations from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Wal-Mart Supercenters at 13300 Cortez Blvd. and 1485 Commercial Way in Spring Hill. People who hand over medications will each be given a coupon to Chick-fil-A.

Walker said the program is part of a multifaceted effort to curb the steadily increasing problem of prescription drug abuse. For example, in Hernando, Walker said, 47 people died from overdoses related to prescription medications in 2008 — a jump of 21 percent from the previous year.

"This is a way for us to do some community awareness about the problem," Walker said. "We're reaching out and doing whatever we can to combat this issue."

The problem of prescription drug abuse is not limited to Hernando. The entire state of Florida has been struggling to deal with the issue.

More than 3,300 Floridians fatally overdosed on prescription drugs in 2007, according to numbers provided by Joel Kaufman, executive director and vice president of the United Way of Broward County's Commission on Substance Abuse. That's an average of nine overdoses per day, and represents a 19 percent increase from the previous year.

"We saw the data emerging about seven years ago," Kaufman said. "And it's only getting worse."

Especially in Broward County. For instance, Broward — in South Florida — has 33 of the top 50 dispensing practitioners of oxycodone in the nation.

To that end, Broward has been aggressive about the promotion of its version of Operation Medicine Cabinet. The county set up a number of dropoff locations last weekend, bringing in more than 25,000 units of prescription medications.

"We're getting a lot more calls than we used to," Kaufman said. "The big incentive is the gift certificate. People love them."

In Collier County, Operation Medicine Cabinet has been met with increasing enthusiasm over the past three years. Veora Little, coordinator of Collier's program, said officials collected more than 5,000 bottles of drugs from about 340 people on March 14.

The biggest moment came when a busload of seniors from a local retirement center came to one of the locations as part of the group's Saturday field trip, Little said.

Three years ago, "we started slow and people weren't that interested," Little said. "But it's simply a change in habit. Now we're getting a consistently good response."

In Hernando, Walker is trying hard to get the word out about Saturday's event. It's the start of what he and others hope is a downward trend in soaring prescription abuse cases.

"The issue isn't unique to us," Walker said, "but we've got some big numbers here and a lot of people suffering."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Fast facts

Drug dropoff day

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office will collect expired, unused and unwanted prescription medications from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Wal-Mart Supercenters at 13300 Cortez Blvd. and 1485 Commercial Way in Spring Hill. People who turn in medications will receive a free Chick-fil-A coupon.

Hernando County Sheriff's Office to collect unwanted medications March 28 03/22/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 22, 2009 5:32pm]
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