There are so many things to think about when a loved one passes away. What to do with the prescription drugs (or other controlled substances) that are in your loved one's medicine cabinet is not usually at the top of that list. Yet, to avoid running afoul of laws governing their disposal, it is important to understand the proper procedures for disposing of a deceased person's controlled substances.
What Are Controlled Substances?
In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which established five categories (called schedules) of controlled substances. Drugs, other substances, and certain chemicals used in making drugs are placed on one of these five schedules according to the drug's acceptable medical use and potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse while Schedule V drugs have the least potential for abuse. Controlled substances range from drugs such as heroin and marijuana (Schedule I) to drugs such as Robitussin AC and Lyrica (Schedule V).
Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010
In 2010, Congress passed the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act (Disposal Act) to address the growing concern about misuse of prescription drugs, particularly among teenagers. To reduce teen access to prescription drugs that are often found in the home, the Disposal Act expanded the ways legal possessors of controlled substances could deliver any unused or unwanted controlled substances to appropriate individuals or agencies for safe and effective disposal, such as through collection receptacles, mail-back packages, and take-back events.
The Disposal Act also allows any person lawfully entitled to dispose of a deceased person's property to dispose of any controlled substances that were in the deceased's lawful possession. In that case, what are the steps you should take when disposing of your loved one's controlled substances?
The Three Steps to Take to Safely Dispose of a Deceased's Unused or Expired Controlled Substances
If your loved one was living in an assisted living facility or was in hospice prior to their death, check with the healthcare staff to find out whether they will dispose of the unwanted or expired medications. If you learn that you are responsible for their disposal and there are no specific disposal instructions in the medication package insert or you have not received specific disposal instructions from a healthcare provider, follow the steps below.
Step 1: Determine if there is a drug take-back site or program.
The first step for properly disposing of a deceased person's controlled substances is to determine whether there is a drug take-back site or program near you. This is the best way to dispose of unwanted or expired medications. You can check the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) website or ask about possible options at your local pharmacy or police station.
Be sure to remove all personal information from prescription medicine labels and packaging. All medicines dropped off at a take-back location will be destroyed. It is generally inadvisable to donate unused drugs, and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not endorse this practice.
Step 2: Determine if the controlled substance is on the flush list.
If you do not have a drug take-back option available near you, the next step is to determine whether the controlled substance is on the FDA's flush list. If the medicine is on the list, the next best option is to immediately flush the controlled substance down the toilet.
Medicines are placed on the flush list if they are either (1) highly sought because of their potential for misuse or abuse or (2) likely to cause death or serious illness from one dose if accidentally or inappropriately taken by children, vulnerable adults, or pets. Because these medications are so dangerous, they should not be placed in the trash. Flushing them down the toilet helps keep everyone in your home and community safer by reducing the risk of the drugs' inappropriate or accidental use.
Some may wonder about the effects on the environment of flushing controlled substances. Based on available reports, most medicines found in water come from the body's elimination of them through urine or feces. Flushing these few medications when there is no take-back option available is responsible for a very small part of the medicine found in our water. In addition, the FDA has determined that this risk is less than the risk of accidental or inappropriate use of such medicines.
Step 3: Put nonflush medicines in the trash.
If there is no drug take-back site available and the controlled substance you want to dispose of is not on the FDA's flush list, you can dispose of the medicine by putting it in the trash after doing the following:
- Mix the medicine (liquid or pills) with an unappetizing material such as dirt or cat litter. Do not crush tablets or capsules.
- Place the mixture in a sealed container, such as a plastic ziplock bag, to prevent the mixture from leaking out of a garbage bag.
- Remove or scratch out all personal information from the empty prescription bottles or medicine packaging.
- Throw the sealed container with the mixture and the empty packaging in the trash.
There are so many loose ends to tie up after a loved one has passed away. Following these three simple steps for disposing of controlled substances will ensure that you have done your part to keep your family and community safer.
 U.S. Drug Enforcement Admin., Drug Scheduling, https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/drug-scheduling.
 Secure and Responsible Drug Dispoal Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111-273, 124 Stat. 2858, https://www.congress.gov/111/plaws/publ273/PLAW-111publ273.pdf.
 U.S. Food and Drug Admin., Drug Disposal: Questions and Answers, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/disposal-unused-medicines-what-you-should-know/drug-disposal-questions-and-answers.