By AMY KLOBUCHAR
Most of us know America has a drug problem. As a prosecutor, I saw the consequences every day in neighborhood violence and damaged lives.
Most of us may not be aware, however, that one of our nation's most serious drug problems is as close as our own medicine cabinets.
Drug abuse doesn't happen only with illegal substances like crack, methamphetamine and ecstasy. It also happens with drugs that are just as addictive but perfectly legal, namely prescription medications.
Prescription drug abuse is the nation's fastest-growing drug problem, and teenagers now abuse prescription medications more than any other illegal drug except for marijuana.
This abuse is made easier because an estimated 17 percent of all prescription medications go unused. These drugs can languish in the family medicine cabinet for months or even years.
Part of the problem is that Americans have gotten mixed messages about what to do with unused medications. Usually, we're told to either flush them down the toilet or throw them away. But then we're also told that flushing the pills can pollute our water and putting them in the trash is an invitation to thieves.
From a public health and public safety standpoint, neither is ideal.
The best solution is to dispose of these drugs at "take-back" programs overseen by local law enforcement and public health officials. An opportunity to do just that is coming up.
This Saturday, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will sponsor the first National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, a nationwide initiative to keep prescription drugs out of the hands of teenagers, thieves and addicts.
Along with local law enforcement and public health agencies, the DEA will collect expired, unused and unwanted prescription drugs for destruction. The service is free and anonymous, no questions asked.
There will be several sites in Minnesota for Take-Back Day. To find a site near you, just go to www.dea.gov.
A national drug take-back day is a great idea, and I support it wholeheartedly. But we should also make it easier for local communities to conduct their own drug take-back programs without getting wrapped up in very expensive government red tape.
That's why I introduced, along with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act. It passed the full Senate last month and companion legislation awaits action in the House.
This bipartisan legislation would amend the Controlled Substances Act and direct the U.S. Department of Justice to come up with new rules to allow local law enforcement and public health authorities to conduct their own drug take-back programs. It would also make it easier for long-term care facilities to dispose of unused medications held on behalf of their residents.
Among those supporting this legislation are 41 state attorneys general, who say it will "prevent prescription drug diversion and make our families and communities safer."
We know that local drug take-back programs can work, because some communities have already tried.
In the Duluth area, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District has run a "Medicine Cabinet Clean-Out Day" several times a year for residents to safely drop off old drugs. Their September event collected more than 450 pounds of unused, unwanted and expired medication. (This number is not so surprising when you consider that some 200 million pounds of prescription medication go unused each year.)
But these local take-back programs find that it can be very costly in terms of both time and money to comply with existing federal law. In part, that's because drugs classified as controlled substances, like Vicodin or Percocet, must be accepted and handled only by a law enforcement officer. They must also be disposed of in a very specific manner.
Sometimes even the best-intended laws turn out to have unforeseen and unfavorable consequences. In these instances, humility is in order. We should live and learn.
I believe the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act will bring some needed common sense to our federal drug laws by making it easier for local communities to get rid of dangerous drugs in their midst.
Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.