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Drug manufacturers must pay to set up drop boxes for unwanted drugs at pharmacies and police agencies, under a measure adopted Thursday by the King County Board of Health.

The board’s 11-0 vote comes on the back of state legislation cracking down on prescription-drug abuse.

An epidemic in Washington state, prescription-drug abuse is the leading cause of accidental death. Between 2006 and 2011, 1,360 people died from drug overdoses in King County, the majority of cases involving prescription opiates.

This drug-disposal program “is not a single solution. It is the last missing link in a comprehensive way to address drug abuse,” said Joe McDermott, a member of the Metropolitan King County Council and chair of the Board of Health. Washington state already has a program for prescription monitoring and educating doctors.

The drop-off sites would accept prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The measure requires every company selling medications in the county to develop a plan to collect, transport and eventually incinerate unwanted drugs. For areas with few drop-off sites, collection events and mail-back programs are also required. Drug companies can decide whether to work together to meet the requirements.

McDermott said he expects the program to be implemented in the next 12 to 15 months.

Alameda County in California adopted a similar industry-funded drug-disposal program last year, but a lawsuit filed by pharmaceutical groups has blocked implementation. Metropolitan King County Council members are aware of the litigation risk, but remain undeterred.

“We believe we have very strong legal standing,” McDermott said. “We have broad legal authority to protect public health.”

Cliff Webster, representing the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhMRA), testified that his group “does not agree that leftover medicine contributes to abuse by young people.” He says the county’s new requirement does not address accidental overdoses from people taking current prescriptions prescribed to others.

PhMRA, which is one of the plaintiffs in the Alameda County lawsuit, says the program puts an undue financial burden on manufacturers. The Board of Health estimates the cost will be 1.8 to 3.8 cents per prescription.

Advocates for the safe drug-disposal program, who have seen similar measures fail in the state Legislature, cheered when the county rule was adopted. Scott DePuy, who lost his son to an accidental overdose in 2008, has been an advocate ever since.

“I’m exhilarated,” he said, “It’s a long time coming.”

Although public comment at the Board of Health’s hearing focused on the risk to children and teens, middle-aged adults account for the majority of accidental-overdose deaths. Many such deaths are of adults dealing with pain or self-medicating for psychiatric illness such as anxiety or depression, said William Hurley, medical director of the Washington Poison Center.

“When you take something like opiate, and you drop it into the environment, there’s inadvertent exposure to the whole range of people. Sometimes it’s people who divert to the streets. Sometimes it’s people who take their friends’ [drugs],” Dr. Hurley said. “Anything we can do to decrease the pool of dangerous drugs is something we should do.”

Sarah Zhang: 206-464-2195 or