Sheriff's program gives drugs the drop

A Los Angeles County sheriff's program encouraging safe disposal of leftover prescription drugs and hypodermic needles has kept several tons of potentially dangerous chemical and biological waste out of sewers and landfills this year, officials reported.

But the program has proven so popular that it's forced sheriff's officials to outsource disposal to another department, and has prompted suspicions that medical clinics — not private residents for whom the program was intended — are taking advantage of the free service.

The Safe Drug Drop-Off program allows residents to anonymously dispose of drug-related waste in modified mailbox containers that stand outside 20 sheriff's department stations throughout the county.

The Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station received 1,168 pounds of drugs and about 60,000 needles in its collection boxes this past year, said Capt. Dave Silversparre.

More than 13,500 pounds of prescription and over-the-counter medications were collected last year at the various stations, said Sgt. Alissa Dedmon of the department's Narcotics Bureau, which has overseen the program since its launch in September 2009.

Also, an estimated 575,000 hypodermic needles and lancets were disposed of through the program in the first 10 months of last year, she said.

The program's unanticipated popularity prompted narcotics officers in October to turn over needle collection and disposal duties to a private firm contracted through the L.A. County Department of Public Works.

"We were being inundated. It was so successful we couldn't dispose of these needles fast enough," said Dedmon, one of the program's architects.

Illegal drop-offs of used needles by commercial clinics that are legally required to dispose of their own waste appears to be contributing to the program's high collection rates, officials said.

"That's part of why the syringes got out of control for us. This is for citizens. This is not for private medical clinics to come and unload their stuff, because that's where we'd incur [higher] costs," Dedmon said.

Deputies have issued warnings, but no citations related to commercial dumping of hypodermic needles and other waste, she added.

Though drop boxes also encourage disposal of illegal drugs, contraband totals are better measured in ounces than tons — with only small amounts of marijuana and a few grams of methamphetamine surrendered this year, said Dedmon.

"Most hardcore drug users are not going to throw away their drugs, but Sheriff [Lee] Baca was adamant that he wanted that option for parents or others who come across illegal drugs and want to dispose of them safely, or for users who are tired of [using drugs] and want to get rid of them," she said.

Rather than to curb illegal drug proliferation, the primary purpose of the program is to keep potentially hazardous waste from winding up in sewers, trash bins or the hands of children.

"It's better these things are surrendered in a controlled fashion instead of, one, allowing the potential for a child to accidentally come into possession of them, or for them to be destroyed in a manner which may damage the environment," Silversparre said.

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