The DEA keeps an eye on a problem that predated the pandemic, and will be here long after

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Sometimes forgotten during the pandemic is that drug overdose deaths have continued to rise. After the COVID threat recedes, the opioid addiction crisis will rage on. That’s why the Drug Enforcement Administration puts a lot of resources into its periodic Drug Take Back Days. In fact, the next one is tomorrow. For a look behind the scenes, the acting DEA administrator, D. Christopher Evans joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Evans, good to have you on.

D. Christopher Evans: Thank you, Tom, I appreciate it.

Tom Temin: And I wanted to go into these Drug Take Back Days. There’s one coming up very shortly, April 24. And this is not something that is just a public affairs or public-facing gesture, it seems like it’s a really major program for the DEA. True?

D. Christopher Evans: Absolutely, Tom. This is a year-long effort for DEA. It’s something which all of our offices throughout the country, our 23 field divisions and every post of duty and regional office in between, are involved in this program. Our diversion control program, our congressional public affairs program, do a lot of the outpacing efforts to do this. But there’s a lot of work that takes place behind the scenes. And it really is all hands on deck. And it’s a year long effort for the agency. And we want to make sure the services we provide to the public are ready to go, are convenient, and are able to make sure the services are good when we carry this out.

Tom Temin: And we can get into some of the details in a moment. But I wanted to ask you about what you have seen in the whole opioid issue during this pandemic, because I think people don’t often realize that the DEA has a big regulatory role in legal drugs like opioids, as well as the illegal traffic.

D. Christopher Evans: You’re correct. And that’s one of the aspects of what we do that’s a little unique that people really don’t understand or don’t realize is part of what we do. Our diversion control program helps provide for the scheduling of controlled substances, including those for legal use, and they help register individuals who handle controlled substances. So that regulation portion of DEA is a site which people often don’t see. But right now with what’s going on with the opioid epidemic, and overdose deaths in this country, that’s a critical element of what we do, and it’s one of those things that directly aligns with the take-back program and the efforts we’re going to have this weekend.

Tom Temin: And the opioid illegal use, or misuse, or over prescription and overuse and so on – that has not abated like so much other activity during the pandemic, has it?

D. Christopher Evans: No, it hasn’t. In fact, the numbers we’ve seen from the CDC for the last year and the data we’ve seen estimates up to 85,000 overdose deaths in this country. And that’s a record number. It’s a number that we didn’t expect and people expect with the pandemic that those numbers would have gone down. But in fact, the opposite. The overdose deaths numbers have actually increased during the last year. And so it’s something we’re trying to continue to address partners in the prevention and treatment folks as well as those and other parts of the community to make sure we can do everything we can to try to get those numbers back going the other direction.

Tom Temin: And in the take-back days do people turn in opioids? I mean, I know people that have had surgery that have gotten a prescription. And they have said, gosh, this is an awful lot of pills – probably more than I really want to get into because of the possibility of getting addicted. So is that one of the major categories that gets dumped back into those bins?

D. Christopher Evans: Well that’s one of the categories that gets dumped back into the bin. We don’t go through and track and identify whether people are turning in opioids, or if they’re turning in cold medicines. It’s one of the things that we want to make sure we provide an opportunity for people to bring whatever unused expired or unwanted medications that they have. And they’re able to drop it off. The one caveat in the category that we can’t take is liquids and then sharps and syringes, and we’re not able to take those. But for any other category of medicines, we’re willing to take those and we want to make sure people get those out of their medicine cabinets, and they’re safely disposed of.

Tom Temin: But do you go through what is dropped off, kind of as a sampling to get an idea of the trends of what people are turning back in or not using?

D. Christopher Evans: No, we don’t one of the things that we want to make sure what the effort is that it’s as convenient as possible for people and what we can do is safely dispose of it. So for making sure that we’re able to do that, for the safety of the people dropping off, as well as the safety of the people who are handling those things, we don’t go through and try to categorize them. We want to make sure that when we get them, we properly container them and make sure there’s disposed of safely. So it’s not something where we’re going through and categorizing and trying to do an analysis on what everything has been dropped off.

Tom Temin: And how do they get disposed of?

D. Christopher Evans: Well, we actually use an incinerator and work through an approved process that’s taken place to have those items burned at a level which makes it safe for the environment. So we actually have special sites that we have to take those medicines to. And that’s one of the things that’s unique about the program is that we are able to collect them, take them to a location where they’re safely disposed of, incinerated in accordance with environmental protection laws and to make sure that we can dispose of them in the best way possible for the environment. So that’s one of the critical things that we’d like to point out to folks is that not only are you keeping your house safe, but you’re also doing the best thing for the environment in terms of the way that these are being destroyed and taken care of.

Tom Temin: We’re sticking with Chris Evans, he’s acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. And in the take back program, you have partners in the corporate world also?

D. Christopher Evans: We do. One of the things that’s important about this is we do partner up with people throughout the country, whether it’s the state or local government, pharmacies like CVS or authorized collectors to help us as part of this take-back mission. Every day, we have this available we’re going through, but we already have a number of sites registered to go through, and to be able to process this and help us through. So pharmacies, law enforcement, medical community, are all part of the process we’re going through. At this time, we already have more than 4,800 sites set up to help us across the U.S.

Tom Temin: And the disposition boxes or the drop boxes – they are marked as DEA?

D. Christopher Evans: They are, they’re marked as DEA, but again, one of the things that we do is we partner with local efforts throughout. So there may be police departments or other areas where they have drop-off spots where we work with them, and they were able to collect those things and turn them in. So you will see DEA markings, but one of the things we want to make sure that people understand is we want every day to be take-back day. We want to make sure that people understand that there’s also an opportunity for them to dispose of these things in their local community. And there are law enforcement entities across the country, as well as some of the other places where people locally can drop these off. We know there’s over 11,000 sites throughout the country that are authorized to have permit collection boxes. So we want to make sure that people know that we partner with the local communities. And this is something that they can take care of. So again, every day can be take-back day, but we really try to push it on these two days a year.

Tom Temin: And as you mentioned, you don’t track the specific content of what is turned in. Do you track the specific weight in terms of just sheer quantities?

D. Christopher Evans: We do, we track the weights and that’s one of the things which is – most people find surprising is with COVID, as we talked about things being different. And the most recent event that we had this past October, we actually had the largest number of medicines turned in that we’ve ever had. We had over 900,000 pounds of medicines that were turned in last October. To date, this is, again, the 20th iteration of this program, and we’re into our 11th year. But to date, we’ve taken in more than 13.5 million pounds of medicines from homes throughout the country. So again, I think when you hear that number – 13.5 million pounds of medicine removed from homes across the country – it really is significant in terms of the effort, what everybody’s doing and the partnership that it takes for this to happen.

Tom Temin: I guess everyone can find, at home during the pandemic, have decided to straighten out their houses so they can live in them better and have gone through those closets and those medicine cabinets. And does that ever strike you, the DEA and maybe other agencies that, golly, why is so much unused drugs being prescribed in the first place?

D. Christopher Evans: Well, I think one of those things that we don’t get into the analysis so much of that, but it is one of those things where you look at it. And I think the early expectations were that this program would be done for a number of time and we would see the weights or the amounts begin to decrease. But we haven’t seen that. And I think part of that is the awareness that people have of the importance of the program. And so as we continue to talk about it, as we continue to make sure people are aware of it, they continue to utilize the program. So as long as we can make sure that we keep people safe, we’re going to continue to do that. But it continues to grow and continue to be able to help communities across the country.

Tom Temin: Chris Evans is acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

D. Christopher Evans: Thank you very much, Tom. I appreciate it.

Tom Temin: And again, Drug Take Back Day is tomorrow, we’ll post this interview at Hear the Federal Drive on demand, subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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