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Officials urge residents to turn in unneeded prescription drugs

As Massachusetts grapples with a surge in heroin overdoses, top elected officials urged residents Monday to scour medicine cabinets and remove unneeded prescription drugs that can act as a gateway to addiction.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh and 10 members of the state’s congressional delegation called on residents to turn in unwanted pills as part of a national effort to curb prescription drug abuse.

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“I’ve watched young people get into a medicine cabinet and start by popping one pill,” Walsh said at a press conference at City Hall, where he was joined by the two US senators and eight of the nine US representatives from Massachusetts. “That one pill takes them and their family on a ride that nobody wants to be on.

“We have young people who take a prescription drug and in a very short time are putting a needle in their arm,” Walsh said.

The officials were promoting National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, an annual event scheduled for April 26. On that day, people can dispose of expired, unused, or unwanted prescriptions prone to abuse and theft. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. that Saturday, people can drop off unwanted prescription drugs with no questions asked at police departments and other locations.

In Boston, there are drug collection kiosks at 11 police stations where prescription drugs can be dropped off any time.

At the press conference, US Senator Elizabeth Warren acknowledged that the prescription take-back is not a panacea, but said it is something tangible that can limit access to habit-forming drugs.

“The problem of addiction is a problem that has many starting points, and one starting point is the family medicine cabinet,” Warren said. “We can fix that problem ourselves. We can fix it by getting drugs off the shelves and getting them into the Police Department.”

In March, Governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency in Massachusetts to combat opiate abuse. Patrick directed that all of the state’s police, firefighters, and other emergency personnel be equipped with a drug that can quickly reverse heroin overdoses.

The governor also prohibited the sale of Zohydro, a narcotic painkiller approved last year in a controversial decision by the US Food and Drug Administration. Zohydro is designed to deliver a time-release dose of the man-made opiate hydrocodone, and critics say it is too easy to abuse, because users can misuse it to get a large dose all at once.

As part of his emergency declaration, Patrick also pledged to spend $20 million to increase treatment and recovery services for the public, state prisons, and county jails.

The initiative to eliminate old prescription pills has a particular focus on codeine, OxyContin, and other legal opiate painkillers that can hook users and lead to other drugs.

“This is where a lot of the serious addiction to heroin begins, this gateway through the medicine cabinet,” said US Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, who also attended Monday’s press conference.

US Representative William R. Keating described his up-close look at struggles with addiction when he served for more than a decade as Norfolk district attorney. He recalled a case in which a police officer robbed banks after becoming hooked on pain medication after back surgery.

“I even had a real estate broker who became addicted,” Keating said, adding that the broker “went from open house to open house to open house to try to get into medicine cabinets in those homes to see if there were drugs there.”

US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III served as a junior prosecutor and told of a young war veteran who developed such a severe addiction to OxyContin that he had stolen and sold all his parents’ jewelry. Outside court before arraignments one Friday, Kennedy was approached by the young man’s father, who asked if his son could be held without bail.

“He wasn’t sure what his son would do if he got released that day,” Kennedy recalled. “He had secured a bed for him at a treatment facility on Monday, but he needed to be sure he’d get there. The only thing he could think of was to spend the weekend in jail.”

Kennedy concluded: “I don’t think there’s a family across our Commonwealth that hasn’t been touched directly or indirectly from this epidemic.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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