DEA Seeks Comments on Controlled Substance Disposal For Patients and Long Term Care Facilities

January 29, 2009

By John A. Gilbert & Larry K. Houck

The Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) has published advance notice of proposed rulemaking that solicits comments on the disposal of controlled substances by non-registrants.  This proposal for the first time could authorize DEA registrants to accept controlled substances back from patients for disposal.  It could also place additional burdens on registrants, particularly pharmacies, who may be inundated with requests to dispose of unused controlled substances. 

Under the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) and its regulations, controlled substances may be transferred only between DEA registrants, including manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies and practitioners.  Patients for obvious reasons, are exempt from DEA registration.  Long term care facilities such as nursing homes, retirement facilities and other institutions that provide extended health care to resident patients are also exempt because they hold prescribed controlled substances in a custodial capacity for their patient-residents.   

Because DEA registrants may not receive controlled substances from non-registrants, patients and long term care facilities cannot transfer unused or unwanted controlled substances to a DEA registrant.  For example, current law prohibits patients and long term care facilities from returning controlled substances to the dispensing pharmacies or transferring the drugs to reverse distributors, the registrants specifically authorized to receive and dispose of controlled substances.  Such prohibition would seem to contradict DEA’s mission to prevent the diversion of legitimate controlled substances because it could lead to non-registrants stockpiling unwanted drugs.

Under current law, patients and long term care facilities who wish to dispose or destroy controlled substances and do not want to just throw them away or flush them down the drain must submit a letter to the local DEA office for authorization.  The authorization may include transfer of the drugs to a registrant, delivery to a DEA agent or local DEA office, or destruction in the presence of a DEA agent.  Few consumers are aware of this regulation and the requirement can present a burden on long term care facilities who may need to dispose of controlled substances on a frequent basis.

On a case-by-case basis, DEA recently granted temporary permission to law enforcement agencies who have requested authorization to accept unwanted controlled substances from patients for disposal. 

The advanced notice of proposed rulemaking recognizes that there may be additional appropriate methods for disposing unwanted controlled substances held by non-registrants and DEA is requesting public comments on disposal options that minimize the risk of diversion, are consistent with the CSA and its regulations and which are environmentally sound.

Comments should be submitted to DEA on or before March 23, 2009.