These substances contribute to more overdoses every year than heroin and cocaine combined.

One of them has been called the most dangerous drug in Clark County, leading to nearly 150 deaths in 2013. Traces of these substances have been found in nearly 80% of the streams sampled in a recent national survey. In addition to these statistics, these substances are also increasingly prescribed to military veterans–with over 15% of returning soldiers having used these substances in the previous month.

Just what are these dangerous substances? Prescription painkillers.

One Southern Nevada program, Operation Medicine Cabinet, hopes to prevent some of this abuse.

Risks of prescription painkillers

While prescription painkillers (also known as opioid medications, opioids, or opiates) do play an important role in the management of severe pain, there are many dangers to their overuse and abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that these drugs can lead to:

  • Breathing problems
  • Coma
  • Addiction
  • Overdose
  • Death

Women, in particular, must be wary of prescription painkillers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in 2013 that shared some of the data on these medications for women.

Between 1999 and 2010, they found that:

  • 48,000 women died of prescription painkiller overdoses
  • Deaths from overdoses in women have increased more than 400% (compared to 265% in men)

Another highly at-risk population is adolescents. The Foundation for a Drug-Free World reports that:

“While the use of many street drugs is on a slight decline in the U.S., abuse of prescription drugs is growing… Among teens, prescription drugs are the most commonly used drugs next to marijuana, and almost half of the teens abusing prescription drugs are taking painkillers… By survey, almost 50% of teens believe that taking prescription drugs is much safer than using illegal street drugs.”

A report from the Drug Enforcement Administration hypothesizes that teens may be abusing prescription medications to party, as a way to self-medicate, as a means to escape boredom, and to help them balance the stressors of schoolwork, extracurriculars, and parental expectations.

No matter the reason, the illicit use of these heavy narcotics is a dangerous risk to many teens.

Unfortunately, many surveys have found that up to 70% of high school seniors receive these drugs from family members or friends. Even if a family member isn’t directly handing a teen the drug, the temptation of unused medications left in a medicine cabinet is still dangerous. It’s important then that programs like Operation Medicine Cabinet are available to help families get rid of extra and unused medications safely.

Operation Medicine Cabinet 

On April 26, Operation Medicine Cabinet teamed up with Southern Nevada law enforcement and the Roseman University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy for a Drug Take Back Day. With these programs, any unused or expired drugs can be dropped off anonymously and with no questions asked at a variety of safe disposal locations around the Valley.

During this year’s drive, Las Vegas residents ended up disposing of 1,000 pounds of unused medications from their homes. These medications ranged from antibiotics to prescription painkillers. Event organizers report that they received garbage bags full of these medications that will now be disposed of safely and not dumped into the water supply.

Over the five years that the program has been operational–with two events per year–Operation Medicine Cabinet has collected more than 30 million unused pills!

Dispose of your unused medications

ABC13 also reports that:


[Operation Medicine Cabinet] hold these drug drop off events twice a year, but you don’t have to wait that long to get rid of your medication. Each of Metro’s area commands have these drug drop off stations so you can come in open the door and drop off your unneeded medication anytime during business hours.”

Through a partnership with the Clark County Water Reclamation District and local police departments, residents can now safely drop-off medications at any local police department substation at any time of year.

You can also check on Operation Medicine Cabinet’s website or Facebook page to receive announcements of upcoming collection events.

If you’re unable to make it to one of the Operation Medicine Cabinet events or your local police station, you can follow the home disposal methods on Southern Nevada Health District’s website to trash them safely and securely.

Our take on opioid therapy 

At Nevada Pain, we do believe that there is a safe and responsible way to use opioid medications for pain management. However, we do so by ensuring that we’ve pursued other, less risky courses of treatment first and conducting a thorough patient examination beforehand.

The 12-Step Compliance Checklist from Pain Doctor informs our prescription methods for our patients. These steps include:

  1. Assessment of pain (0-10 scale)
  2. Clear documentation of rationale for opioid use (i.e., chronic lower back pain or degenerative disc disease)
  3. Clear  documentation  of  beneficial  clinical  response  to  opioid  use  (i.e., decrease pain or increase function)
  4. Establish goals of opioid treatment and review of goals
  5. Current and updated medication list
  6. Documentation of substance abuse and social history
  7. Physical examination of painful area(s)
  8. Documentation of risks and benefits explained to patient
  9. Appropriate   referral   for   additional   evaluation   and   treatment   (i.e., psychiatric referral for depression)
  10. Updated Pharmacy Board review
  11. Current and consistent urine drug screening (UDS) within last 30 days
  12. Patient has signed an Opioid Agreement within last six months

By following a detailed risk assessment, we believe we can prevent many patients from experiencing the negative long-term effects of opioid use. If you use prescription painkillers, you should also work with your doctor to better manage and monitor your own opioid usage. With the help of your pain management team, you can use these medications in the safest and most responsible way possible.

Do you use prescription painkillers to help with your pain? Have you ever used programs like Operation Medicine Cabinet to dispose of your unused medications safely? 

Image by Matthew Ragan via Flickr