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DIGGING DEEPER: DEA destroys unused, expired prescriptions

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Opioid addiction is the leading cause of overdose deaths and is an epidemic.

According to the CDC, more than 72 percent of the overdose deaths in 2019 were attributed to opioids.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said that many people become addicted when drugs are easily accessible, such as in medicine cabinets in their homes. 

DEA held a "Take Back" campaign on April 24, where people could dispose of unused or expired prescription medications.

The Digging Deeper Team was given unprecedented access to the destruction of the drugs that were collected.

In an undisclosed location, DEA took over 16,000 pounds of expired or unused prescription drugs to be destroyed. Boxes upon boxes were unloaded from moving trucks onto a conveyor belt that took the pills into a fiery furnace.

The boxes came from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that partnered with the DEA for their campaign. This year, they collected a record of nine tons. That is three tons more than in 2019.

Due to the quantity of the drugs, no one but law enforcement was allowed on the premises. The drugs were destroyed according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines. 

Cheri Oz is the special agent in charge for the DEA Phoenix division.

"I think people are becoming more and more aware of the opioid crisis and they are doing their part to make sure it doesn't happen in their homes," Oz said.

Tylen Whitt has been drug-free for a year.  He is an intern at Amity Foundation at Circle Tree Ranch.  He came to them after a five-year addiction to opioids. 

"I would go into the medicine cabinet, [and] I would sneak pills now and then that would amplify my addiction," Whitt said.

There were 95 collection sites statewide.

"Having medicines at home that could tempt is a problem, and parents are starting to realize they want to be a part of the solution," Oz said. "And so they are looking at their medicine cabinets and cleaning them out."

She also urged parents to talk to their children about the danger of drugs.

"As a mom myself, I think it's important [that] we start the conversation with our kids," Oz said. "Our goal is to keep the community safe and to really win the opioid crisis that we are involved in now."

Whitt wants people to know there is help out there.

"There's definitely hope if they feel bad enough," Whitt said. "They see where they were wrong, and they have enough guilt to want to change to not do something like that again."

DEA Special Agent Bill Czopek said there are a couple of things that you can do now to keep prescription medications out of other people's hands, such as checking with local law enforcement about year-round drop-off locations, locking up your medications or disposing of them.

"Put them in coffee grinds, cat litter, maybe put them in dirt. Then what you can do is bag that up and throw it in the trash," Czopek said. "What that does is prevents anybody from having access to those pills even if they were to go through your trash."

DEA officials said, by destroying these drugs, they potentially saved hundreds maybe even thousands of lives. DEA started the "Take back" campaign 10 years ago.

Since then, they have collected and destroyed over 11 million pounds of medications nationwide.

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Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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