San Francisco’s drug disposal program hailed as a success, but funding is drying up

AP File PhotoThe City’s $110

San Francisco’s pilot program for drug disposal is being hailed as a success, but it will end in June unless more funding can be found.  

The City has suffered setbacks during its long struggle to ensure the safe disposal of unwanted medicines. Most recently, lawmakers were on the verge of passing legislation requiring pharmaceutical companies to fund and operate a drug take-back program. But when opposition killed the effort, an agreement was reached in which companies would spend $110,000 on a pilot disposal program.  

The program began in April and has resulted in the safe disposal of 10,480 pounds of medicine, according to a Dec. 18 report from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Because of that success, city officials are working to figure out how to keep the program going. The report noted that the pilot has been “severely” limited by simply relying on the drug companies’ one-time financial contribution.

San Francisco officials are likely paying close attention to what happens with a lawsuit against Alameda County, which recently became the nation’s first municipality to pass a law requiring drug companies to fund and operate a disposal program.  

Under The City’s pilot program, the unwanted drugs are dropped off at 13 independent participating pharmacies and 10 police stations. Pharmacies only accept noncontrolled substances such as prescription and over-the-counter medicines, while controlled substances such as oxycodone and diazepam must be dropped off at police stations.

The City contracts with a state-licensed medical waste hauler to service the pharmacies weekly and transport medicine waste to an approved incineration facility in Texas. Police dispose of the waste medicines as they would illicit substances collected as evidence.

According to the Department of the Environment’s information about the disposal program, numerous problems are associated with storing unwanted drugs or flushing them down a toilet.

Wastewater treatment plants do not remove medications, which can end up polluting the environment. The department notes that “antidepressants have been shown to disrupt the reproductive cycles of fish.”

In addition, leaving unwanted drugs around the house could result in abuse. “More drug overdoses occur annually from prescription medicines than cocaine and heroin combined,” according to the department.

For 15 years beginning in 1990, residents who wanted to dispose of their drugs had the option of dropping them off at a facility operated by the trash hauling company Recology, but that program was “suspended due to federal regulatory concerns,” according to the SFPUC’s report.

In 2006, The City held a two-day medicine collection event at various Walgreens locations, “but the disposal costs associated with these events were unsustainable.”

The City then decided to distribute prepaid disposal envelops to residents who requested them. “But, at the cost of $3.75 per envelope, this program was also cost-prohibitive,” the report said.

That led to a drawn-out battle in 2010 between the Board of Supervisors and pharmaceutical companies over proposed legislation that would have required drug companies doing business in San Francisco to pay for and operate a disposal program.

At the time, Genentech called the proposal “unreasonable” and said it would “increase overall costs” of drugs to the consumers and would “discourage investment” of clinical research going on in San Francisco’s biotech industry.

In the end, an agreement was reached and the legislation was shelved. The Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America and Genentech contributed a combined $110,000 grant so The City could launch the existing pilot program.

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