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In mobilizing against the opioid epidemic, we can’t forget about prevention

Substance misuse often starts by taking a family member’s leftover painkiller from the medicine cabinet. Co-dispensing a disposal method at the time of prescription can be a powerful tool.

Tablets of the opioid-based Hydrocodone.
Tablets of the opioid-based Hydrocodone.
REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021 was the deadliest year on record for drug overdoses in U.S. history. The agency estimates that nearly 108,000 people died of overdoses in 2021, including more than 1,300 Minnesotans. At the same time, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, there were 14 nonfatal overdoses for every fatal overdose in 2020, and we’re anxiously awaiting 2021 numbers.

Government and community leaders are doing great work to stop drug trafficking, expand access to treatment, and make tools like Narcan and fentanyl testing strips more available. But there has been too little focus on one key factor: preventing drug misuse before it even starts.

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For many people, substance misuse starts small, perhaps by taking a family member’s leftover prescription painkiller from the home medicine cabinet. It seems safe; it’s prescribed by a doctor. But all too often this opens the door to a much bigger problem: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 80% of heroin users first began with misusing prescription opioids.

One easy prevention step is to decrease the risk of medication misuse in our own homes by safely deactivating and disposing of leftover medications. Many of us have extra medication bottles in the house, and more than 60% of people hold onto opioids indefinitely, greatly increasing the risks that a child, friend or relative could be harmed by the medication.

At our Minnetonka company, Verde Environmental Technologies Inc., our mission is to combat the opioid epidemic by getting safe at-home medication disposal tools into more people’s hands. Every April and October since 2020, we partner with national nonprofit SAFE Project on the Gone for Good® at-home medication disposal campaign to encourage people to clean out their medicine cabinets by giving out thousands of free Deterra® Drug Deactivation and Disposal Pouches, which allow users to easily destroy unused prescription and over-the-counter medications, including addictive opioids and fentanyl at home. Our plant-based pouches are also safe for disposal in household trash and prevent harmful drugs from entering our water and soil.

As of May 2022, we have distributed more than 100,000 pouches to U.S. households — enough to destroy over 9 million pills — through Gone for Good. But prevention can and should happen year-round. I call on local, state and federal leaders, health care, first responders and everyone on the frontlines of this epidemic to prioritize prevention.

Increasing education on prescription drug misuse and proper disposal, particularly opioids, is key. One great local example is the Minnesota Farm Bureau, the state’s largest agricultural organization.

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While nearly 75% of farmers and farm workers have been directly impacted by the opioid epidemic, only 1 in 3 rural adults have easy access to drug treatment. The Minnesota Farm Bureau works hard to share resources and encourage open conversations about addiction, recovery and stigma at events across the state. It also distributes Deterra Pouches to rural communities, where resources like drop-off boxes can be few and far between.

Health care providers also play a pivotal role in prevention. While providers have significantly decreased the number of opioids they prescribe — from a peak of 255 million in 2012 to 142 million in 2020 — it’s essential that they talk to every patient about how to properly use and dispose of opioids when they are prescribed or dispensed.

Twin Cities Orthopedics is providing a great model for health care organizations: When patients are discharged from any of TCO’s surgery centers with a prescription, staff discuss medication disposal and give patients a Deterra Pouch to get rid of any leftover medications.

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Co-dispensing a disposal method at the time of prescription can be an incredibly powerful tool to encourage patients to get rid of leftover medications and decrease the risks of possible misuse.

Jason Sundby
Jason Sundby
Finally, we need to increase funding for evidence-based prevention tools. Thankfully, Minnesota is already ahead of the curve here. This month Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill directing how the state will spend the $300 million opioid settlement package it received from opioid manufacturers and distributors, paving the way for this money to be distributed to combat this ongoing crisis.

This funding is a huge boon to our state, and we look forward to seeing how local organizations are able to use these dollars to expand education, treatment, prevention and recovery strategies in Minnesota.

The opioid epidemic is a complex problem that our state and country are faced with, but together, I believe we have the power to turn the tide. It’s our duty to do so.

Jason Sundby is chairman and CEO of Verde Environmental Technologies, Inc., maker of the Deterra® Drug Deactivation and Disposal System, located in Minnetonka, Minn.