PITTSFIELD — Nearly 300 lock boxes are headed for select senior households all around the Berkshires to prevent "dangerous" and "addictive" opioid drugs ending up in the wrong hands, said District Attorney David F. Capeless.
On Tuesday, Capeless said a new program to purchase and distribute the boxes — which he hopes to fund with state money — "directly benefits our seniors, their families and the entire community.
"Imagine the pain and sadness our seniors would feel knowing a family member ended up with an addiction problem as a result of insecure medications in their home," Capeless said. "This program aims to prevent anyone from feeling that terrible responsibility."
The latest statistics show 6.5 million Americans abused prescription medications during the past month. Although seniors only make up 13 percent of the national population, they consume more than a third of prescription medications.
A quarter of teenagers have at some point abused prescription medications, and three-quarters of them acquired the drugs through a family member of friend. Capeless' new program is aimed directly at that problem.
"That exhibits, together, a very dangerous trend," Capeless said. "We realized there was one very practical step we could take to limit the flow of prescription medications to prevent them going from helpful medications to drugs of abuse, putting our children and the rest of the community at risk."
Capeless announced the initiative while standing in front of a wall of Amazon boxes containing the several hundred lock boxes. The DA's Office, Capeless said, has partnered with Elder Services of Berkshire County — which will select the homes this initial round of boxes should go to — on the program.
"We'll go across the whole county looking at our case load to identify elders throughout Berkshire County who will offer these lock boxes to," said John Lutz, executive director of Elder Services of Berkshire County. "Based upon statistics, these [nearly 300 lock boxes] would be used up just by our current case load, given the prevalence of opioid prescriptions."
Lutz said his organization had already well documented the problem of seniors' prescriptions being stolen.
"If we're seeing it happen this often, we knew it would happen more and more," he said. "This is responding to the canary in the coal mine. Something's clearly going on, and this is one tangible way to make it more difficult for people to abuse those prescription medications."
The New York Times reported this month that fatal drug overdoses reached a new high in 2014, killing nearly 50,000 Americans, more than were killed in auto accidents and twice as many as died in 2000, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of these deaths due to overdose, 28,646 involved prescription painkillers, the same article stated.
Capeless said he wants to rapidly expand the program, but funding problems exist. A special appropriation by the state Legislature to the District Attorneys Association was supposed to kickstart it, but the money has yet to be made available.
"That money has not actually been distributed to us," Capeless said. "We're awaiting the funding, unfortunately. There's some concern about a cutback in our appropriations."
He added, "I do have some concerns about our ability to move forward with the program and expand it. Regardless what happens with those funds, we've already bought the boxes. We're going to find some way to fill the gap if [funding] recedes."
Capeless encouraged people to search "prescription lock boxes" and buy their own, saying every house should have one. An average box costs about $25, he said.