Thursday, in the Health and Long-Term Care Committee, we held a hearing on my Medicine Stewardship bill, SB 5234. This legislation will require the pharmaceutical manufacturers, who profit handsomely from Washington's $4 billion annual prescription and over-the-counter drug purchases, to design and fund a process to take the unused medications back and dispose of them in a safe and environmentally sound manner. Washingtonians would be able to drop off their unused medications at their local pharmacies.
Environmentalists, police officers, and public health officials support the Medicine Stewardship program. The idea for the legislation was originally suggested to me a few years ago by environmentalists, who noted that unused medications are often thrown into the garbage and end up in landfills or else are flushed down toilets and into municipal wastewater treatment plants, then into rivers or Puget Sound.
After I started working on this legislation, it quickly became apparent that public health officials, police officers, and people working against drug abuse in our communities were extremely supportive. They know that unused medications accumulate over years in people’s medicine cabinets. All too often, they find their way into the high-school drug-trade or are accidently ingested by children in the house. Officers and public health officials told me story after story about kids getting high or overdosing on their parent’s prescription medication, or selling and trading them at school. Adults also misuse and sell prescription medications, and they have become a large part of our state’s criminal drug trade.
At the hearings for this legislation Thursday and last year, the most compelling testimony came from parents and grandparents of children who died from overdoses on prescription medication. In our state, drug overdose is the most common cause of accidental death, superseding car accidents and causing an average of two deaths per day. Prescription medications are the cause of the majority of these overdoses.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (Pharma) is very displeased about this bill. They are interested in selling drugs, not taking them back, and have marshaled their considerable resources to lobby against it. Pharma doesn’t like the notion that those who put a product into the marketplace and profit from it owe the public some obligation of stewardship over it. A few years back, we took the electronics manufacturers down this path; the presence of mercury in many of their products required that they oversee responsible disposal of dead computers. We were aided by conscientious users and buyers of computer electronics, who pressured the industry until its leaders—a politically savvy bunch—finally heard their customers.
Big Pharma isn’t quite there yet. The legislation puts an annual $2.5 million cap on the cost of the program, but based on the experience of a similar program in Vancouver, B.C., we estimate that the annual costs will be closer to $250,000. Currently, a few Washington counties have medicine take-back programs that are coordinated by and paid for by law enforcement. The programs are successful, in that they’re making sure that a lot of unused medication gets out of circulation. The Thurston County Sheriff who testified yesterday in support of my bill said that even though they haven’t done a lot of advertising, their program (with just 5 drop-off sites) has gathered over 2,100 pounds of medication over the past few months. It’s a great program; I just don’t think that our financially-strapped law enforcement agencies should have to cover the costs of gathering up products made by a highly profitable industry.
After three years of determined work, I think our team is finally in a position to win one against Big Pharma.