An increasing number of people are getting their hands on highly addictive drugs, and it's not hard to find the dope dealer -- the medicine cabinet.
Authorities in Stanislaus, Merced and Tuolumne counties are asking residents to get rid of unused or expired prescription drugs in their medicine cabinets.
They're asking people to visit one of several drug drop-off events this month so the medication can be disposed of properly.
"A lot of parents don't realize that youths are getting high on these drugs, and they're getting them from their medicine cabinets," said Jennifer Marsh, coordinator of Stanislaus County's Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention program.
Of the most commonly abused drugs, prescription medications are behind only marijuana and ahead of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Five "Drop the Drugs" events in four cities will be held by Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services and the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency.
Marsh said residents can drop off pills, syringes and over-the-counter medicine, no questions asked. It's preferred that the pills be in the original bottles, but the organizers will take them in any container.
This is the second year for pill collections by Stanislaus County officials. Last year, they collected about 176,000 pills, weighing more than 500 pounds.
The organizers have held events in Modesto and Patterson this month and have collected about 50 pounds of medication. Marsh said the most common medicines turned in are painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin.
Federal officials say there are three classes of prescription drugs that are most commonly abused: opiates, central nervous system depressants and stimulants. Opiate overdoses, which used to be almost always because of heroin use, increasingly are because prescription painkillers are abused.
"(Painkillers) provide the same kind of high as heroin because they're both made from opiates," said Jeff Godfrey of the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency.
Users, especially teens, he said, have a false sense of security when they start abusing painkillers. "They think (painkillers) are a safer high because they're prescribed by a doctor or their parents use them," Godfrey said.
The number of deaths in the United States involving prescription opiates increased 66 percent from 3,484 in 2001 to 5,789 in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Godfrey said parents must be vigilant because their children or their children's friends can easily snatch the pills. The Stanislaus County events will offer education for parents.
Children aren't the only culprits. Godfrey said leaving unused or expired medication in medicine cabinets can be easy pickings for burglars. He said there have been reports of thieves posing as potential home buyers at an open house for the sole purpose of getting into the bathroom and rifling through the medicine cabinet.
In a similar effort, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is working with local agencies to hold "Take Back" prescription drug events Sept. 25 across the country.
Merced County sheriff's spokesman deputy Tom MacKenzie said children stealing drugs from the medicine cabinet can go unnoticed.
"They might take 15 pills out of the bottle without the grandparents or parents noticing, because they might not be taking a close look at the bottle," he said.
Improperly disposing of drugs can create a safety hazard for an entire neighborhood, he said. Many people mistakenly believe flushing pills down the toilet is OK.
"It gets into your water supply," MacKenzie said.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.