Rx Drug Take-Back Day Yields Nearly Half-Ton of Unwanted Meds

Johns Hopkins pharmacy volunteers lead the effort to dispose of potentially dangerous drugs.

Patient safety specialist Paula Kent (left) prepares to dispose of a bag of unwanted prescription medications at the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center. Assisting her is Pharmacy division director, Meghan Swarthout.

Published in Dome - Dome May/June 2021

Senior pharmacy technician Darryl Rotrock started the first of his double shifts at the Johns Hopkins Central Pharmacy at 3 p.m. on the sunny spring Saturday of April 24. But before dispensing medications, Rotrock spent a few hours helping Baltimoreans get rid of medicines they no longer need.

“It’ll be a long day, for sure,” he said, shaking the contents of a large pill bottle into the red rubber garbage barrel. “But this is too important to skip just because I have a 16-hour workday.”

Rotrock was volunteering alongside many of his Johns Hopkins pharmacy teammates at an event designed to help people get rid of potentially dangerous medications kept in their homes beyond their prescription and expiration dates.

Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, Rotrock and his colleagues were stationed — physically distanced and properly masked — outside the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center (JHOC), where they’d set up a curbside drop-off station. Volunteers collected the medications handed to them through the windows of a steady stream of cars. They emptied bags, boxes and bottles of unwanted drugs into barrels bound for an incinerator.

For the third consecutive year, the Johns Hopkins Health System pharmacy team made a dent in the amount of often dangerous prescription drugs taking up medicine cabinet space in Maryland, Florida and Washington, D.C. The effort was part of a push to help people get rid of unwanted prescription medications, particularly opioids.

At drive-up sites outside the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Howard County General Hospital, Sibley Memorial Hospital and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, volunteers collected nearly 1,000 pounds of unwanted medications from 567 community residents.

Held every April and October, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is a program of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Most of the nation’s 4,587 drop-off sites are at law enforcement agencies, such as police stations. However, some people may hesitate to return drugs at a law enforcement site, says Meghan Swarthout, director of the Department of Pharmacy’s Ambulatory and Care Transitions Division and organizer of the JHHS take-back events.

“Returning medications to hospitals and pharmacies could be less intimidating,” says Swarthout, adding that her team arranges for extra security at the take-back sites, to make sure no medications are stolen and that attendees and volunteers are safe. “The more options, the better.”

JHOC volunteer leader Olivia Berger, a pharmacy resident who specializes in pain management and palliative care, says take-back day was especially important this year; during the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 U.S. states have reported an increase in opioid-related deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The pandemic has dominated the news for a year,” said Berger, snapping large antibiotics out of their blister packets and into a barrel half-filled with colorful pills and capsules. “But just because we’re talking about something else doesn’t mean the opioid crisis is behind us.”

Strengthening Community Ties

Johns Hopkins Bayview central pharmacy operations manager Mayrim Millan-Barea says the take-back event gave her a chance to connect with community members as they dropped off their old medications for disposal.

“It’s very rewarding,” she says. “It really brings me back to the reason I went into the field of pharmacy: the feeling you get when you do something for someone else.”

When an East Baltimore man rode a bicycle to the JHOC take-back site, he pulled a small bag with several tall pill bottles from his backpack and handed it to Berger. He thanked her for ridding him of the hazard.

“I don’t want my son to get into these,” he says. “He’s 3. I had some minor surgery a few years ago, and don’t remember if I even used these pills. I’m just glad to have them out of the house.”