With Americans increasingly engaged in prescription-drug abuse, law enforcement is attacking their supply line: home medicine cabinets.

Nearly 70 South Jersey police departments will collect unwanted or expired prescription and over-the-counter drugs Saturday in Operation Medicine Cabinet, a statewide project organized by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the state Attorney General's Office, and the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

"Something inherently good is dangerous in the wrong hands," said Gerard P. McAleer, DEA special agent in charge. "Kids are going into their medicine cabinets at home or visiting Grandma and Grandpa to take painkillers."

An estimated 20 percent of the U.S. population age 12 or older have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Abusers tend to be teenagers, women, and older adults.

In a national survey of 12th graders conducted in 2007, seven of the 10 drugs reported most frequently abused were prescribed or over-the-counter, the agency found.

Nearly 10 percent of the students reported abusing Vicodin, and 4.7 percent had tried OxyContin, both powerful painkillers. Other drugs cited included the painkillers Percocet and codeine and tranquilizers Valium and Xanax.

While alcohol and cigarette use by teens has dropped in recent years, the rate of prescription-drug abuse remains high, NIDA found. The agency's annual Monitoring the Future report, now in its 33d year, is based on classroom surveys.

Operation Medicine Chest organizers hope the New Jersey drop-off, to be held between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., will become a national model. Officers will ask no questions about the medicines, nor will they seek residents' identification. The DEA will dispose of the materials.

Among more than 400 communities participating are all 24 in Gloucester County; a dozen in Camden County, including Camden, Cherry Hill, and Gloucester Township; and 30 in Burlington County, including Burlington Township, Evesham, Lumberton, and Willingboro.

"Teens abuse prescription drugs for different reasons," said David Rubenstein, director of counseling and psychological services at Rowan University in Glassboro. "Some to self-medicate, trying to help with sleep, anxiety, depression. Others abuse prescription drugs in a recreational sense, to get high."

New Jersey's latest public-school violence statistics showed downward trends in fights, theft, property damage, and alcohol use, but reported incidents involving unauthorized prescription drugs up 77 percent between 2005-06 and 2007-08.

"It's something we will certainly be focusing on going forward," state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy said when the report was released last month.

Many parents focus on illicit drugs and overlook the danger of legal medications, according to Angelo M. Valente, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey. In the group's annual survey of middle-school parents, about 47 percent said they knew little or nothing about prescription-drug abuse.

Parents should keep all drugs in a locked storage area, Rubenstein said. "That also prevents other teens and children from abusing medications obtained from someone else's house."

Teens trade legally prescribed Ritalin and other attention-deficit-disorder drugs at school or pop painkillers while drinking or smoking marijuana at parties, said Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

If caught selling, they could be sentenced to probation, community service, or incarceration. Possession may result in curfews, mandatory treatment, or juvenile drug court, he said.

Operation Medicine Cabinet builds on an award-winning 2008 prescription-drug-abuse awareness campaign, titled "Grandma's Stash," by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey. Among the facts highlighted: 70 percent of abusers obtain painkillers from bottles prescribed to relatives or acquaintances.

"The average person has a prescription for 60 pills. If someone takes out five, no one will notice until the end of the month, and then they'll just think the pharmacy shorted them," said Pamela M. Negro, director of Rowan University's Center for Addiction Studies.

Negro, who voices Grandma Rose in the ads, counsels college students who try to ace tests by taking stimulants or reduce stress by drinking cough syrup.

"It's not new, it's just accessible," she said.

Operation Medicine Cabinet also hopes to benefit the environment by keeping medications out of municipal sewer systems, organizers said.

"Several years ago, the federal government spoke out against the long-accepted practice of simply flushing unwanted or expired medicine, alerting the public that the toilet is not a trash can," Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt said in a statement.

Last year, an Associated Press investigation discovered traces of antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, and painkillers in the tap water near dozens of major metropolitan areas. Philadelphia fared among the worst, with 56 pharmaceuticals and by-products detected.

DEA hopes to make the collection an annual event, McAleer said.

"We won't measure success just by the amount of drugs turned in," he said. "We want to raise awareness - get parents talking to their children."

Operation Medicine Cabinet

More than 400 police departments and public offices in New Jersey will accept prescription and over-the-counter medicines for disposal from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

To locate a site, go to www.OperationMedicineCabinetNJ.com or call 973-467-2100.

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