LARGO — Local law enforcement agencies will fan out across Tampa Bay on Saturday for Operation Medicine Cabinet, a multi-agency initiative to give residents a chance to dispose of unused or expired medicine.
Authorities who gathered Tuesday at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said their goal is to increase awareness about prescription drug abuse and cut down on the number of accidental overdoses, which have skyrocketed in the Tampa Bay area and across the state in recent years, said sheriff's Lt. Robert Alfonso of the narcotics unit.
"The numbers are staggering," Alfonso said. "The public needs to realize this is a major, major problem."
In Pinellas and Pasco counties, prescription drug-related deaths were the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in 2008, surpassing motor vehicle accidents, said Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.
In 2008, 379 people died of accidental prescription drug-related deaths in those two counties. By comparison, those counties had 201 deaths from motor vehicle accidents that year.
The prescription drug take-back program is one tool that could help reduce the number of accidental overdoses, Pellan said.
"We've seen where someone goes to a family member's house, an aunt, an uncle or a grandparent's house and finds those medicines in their medicine cabinet … then they overdose," Pellan said.
A statewide prescription drug-monitoring database also could help, Pellan said. A bill to create the database has passed the state Legislature and awaits Gov. Charlie Crist's signature.
Officials with the Sheriff's Office and St. Petersburg Police Department said Tuesday that demand for prescription drugs has caused an uptick in crime recently. The number of pharmacy robberies and burglaries, as well as home invasions targeting street-level prescription pill dealers, are all up.
Expired or unused prescription and over-the-counter medicine can be dropped off at 10 locations across the bay area.
The drugs will be incinerated. Neither prescription nor over-the-counter drugs should be flushed down the toilet, because they can end up in the water supply, said sheriff's Sgt. Robert Wold.
A study by the Environmental Protection Agency and Baylor University found that fish in five rivers, including one in the Orlando area, registered trace amounts of pharmaceuticals.