ALAMEDA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS | Alameda County is one step closer to becoming the first municipality in the nation to force pharmaceutical companies to establish drug disposal programs for unwanted, unneeded and expired drugs. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors took the first step by unanimously approving the proposed ordinance July 10. A second reading of the ordinance, long pushed by Supervisor Nate Miley, will come before the board July 24.

Under the proposed ordinance, drug producers will need to create and implement, at their own costs, a program for the safe disposal of the pharmaceuticals they produce. Until now, outside of various non-profits eliciting and disposing of unwanted prescription drugs, they is no readily available venue for people to rid themselves of their prescription drugs. Throwing away drugs is frowned upon as is flushing pills down the toilet. Both methods of disposal damage the environment and make their way into the water supply, say environmentalists.

Over the past six months, the Alameda County Sheriffs Department and County District Attorney’s office have also tied the ordinance to claims of teenagers and young adults abusing leftover medications found in the home. The specter of so-called “pharma parties” whereby kids collect various pills in a bowl and experiment with their effects has been raised on several occasion, including last week’s meeting.

Miley says there is huge demand in the county for a drug disposal program, but acknowledges the county is being proactive “because of the inability or the unwillingness of the state and federal government to act,” he said, “That’s why it was brought to Alameda County’s attention.” Similar drug disposal programs facilitated by drug producers exist in Europe and in Canada, he added. “So, it’s not something we’re just dreaming about.”

The road to the ordinance’s approval has been long and not without interruption and may not be put into effect for even longer if a planned lawsuit by drug companies come to fruition. The Board of Supervisors initially approved a similar plan last February. However, before the ordinance’s second reading on March 13, drug producers said they were unaware of the proposed law and asked for further time and meetings with the county. The county also postponed a vote on the ordinance last month. “The ordinance is stronger now than it would have been in February,” said Miley. While the differences between the version of the ordinance in February and the one approved last week are small and maintain its basic structure. They also strengthen the focus on drug producers footing the bill for the program and away from retailers and customers.

According to county staff, the changes include an exemption for medical devices that contain medication, such as, inhalers, and more clearly states drug retailers and pharmacists are not included in the ordinance. Non-prescription medications are also not included. A second level of appeal was added that now includes a hearing before the Board of Supervisors. The ordinance states a fine of $1,000 per day for each violation will be levied. Opponents of the ordinance last week charged retailers only got on board with the ordinance after they were exempted from the drug disposal ordinance.

Although the ordinance’s passage July 24 is almost assured, whether or not it goes in effect in the next years or so is up in the air. Supervisor Scott Haggerty made two references to the possibility some drug companies may sue the county over the implementation of the ordinance. Instead, of paying high legal fees to fight the county in court, Haggerty argued, he urged them to work with the county to make the ordinance work better. If the legal barriers are averted, consumers in the county could begin seeing advertising and signage for the program sometime in late 2013.