Evidence Management – Tag… You’re Not It. No Take Backs!

Posted on: Sep 29, 2022

Categories: Evidence Management, Evidence management training, Evidence Training

The Case for Taking Back Law Enforcement Drug Take-Back Programs

By Shawn Henderson, Executive Director of the Evidence Management Institute 

The Way We’ve Always Done It… 

Evidence management

The way we’ve always done it,” is almost a mantra for law enforcement agencies across the country. That mindset seeps into our collective subconscious brains and becomes support for many programs and practices that we should have long since abandoned. Drug take-back programs started out decades ago as a service to the community, but like many of the pills dumped into the box, these programs are well past their useful expiration date. 

Law Enforcement Drug Take Back Programs (let’s shorten it to LEDTBP) typically fall into the category ‘things we’ve always done,’ without any real consideration of the multiple reasons these programs quickly become a nightmare for evidence custodians across the country. It’s past time to take a look at these programs and assess their value or appropriateness as a law enforcement service and focus our efforts on other areas to safeguard the integrity of our evidence operations. 


The case against LEDTBP is solid but simple. They are unnecessary and they violate every acceptable principle of sound evidence management. Of course, there is a need for the safe disposal of unused or expired pharmaceuticals and medical products. Yes, it’s a valuable service to the community. The question is not whether safe drug disposal is important or necessary. The question is whether LEDTBP are a necessary or appropriate community service for law enforcement agencies. 

Other People Do It Better 

There’s a reason law enforcement agencies don’t sell insurance or perform open heart surgery for our citizens. Other people do it better. CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Sams, and Costco pharmacies each provide prescription drug take-back services for their customers. While there are a few corporate holdouts, most retail pharmacies have provided these services for years. They are better equipped, better trained, and better resourced to do the job in every conceivable metric. 

Evidence Management

Retail pharmacies have access to shipping and disposal processes that law enforcement will never have. Retail pharmacies simply make more sense to facilitate drug take-back programs. They sell drugs. You buy drugs. You’re already there to pick up your cholesterol medicine and buy some flip-flops. You might as well bring that suitcase of drugs left behind by your dearly departed grannie with you and drop them off there.

Retail pharmacies are better resourced than law enforcement to provide drug take-back programs. The five retail chains I mentioned earlier combined for over 578 billion dollars in retail sales in 2021 alone. That’s about $578,000,000,000.00 over your current agency budget for your LEDTBPs. 

Pharmacies are staffed by who? Pharmacists with as many years of education as the physicians who prescribe the medication, and pharmacy technicians who are often certified by the state. Who do you call to find out whether two medicines can be stored or mixed together? Would you call a cop or an evidence custodian? Likely not. Pharmacy staff members are uniquely qualified to administer and facilitate a safe drug take-back program. In law enforcement, we are simply not qualified or trained to the same degree. 

LEDTBP and Everything We Do

 Ask yourself this question… Would you allow an officer to submit a box of mixed drugs, unknown chemicals, loose syringes, half-used fentanyl patches, assorted trash, and a few adult diapers collected with zero chain of custody, left in your lobby unattended for the past six months? I wouldn’t either. If that doesn’t sound problematic to you, then you should have been fired years ago. 

Evidence Management

For law enforcement, LEDTBP generate more problems than solutions. Sure, there are cooperative programs through agencies like the DEA to mitigate some of the burdens, and there are a few mail-back programs in existence through other entities. But even assisted or cooperative LEDTB programs fail to address most of the burdensome and hazardous elements of participation. The cost, literally and figuratively, outweighs the value by every measure. Rather than write it out in a long confusing narrative, let’s use a table…

LEDTBP vs. Universal Evidence Principles

The Issue The Problem The Impact
Intake Most LEDTBP are unstaffed, passive operations leading to the uncontrolled deposit of unknown, unlisted items into the take-back receptacle. If there are no intake controls placed on disposal programs, the agency unintentionally, but predictably, allows multiple potential health and safety hazards into the evidence vault. The undocumented submission of property or evidence violates universally accepted practices and standards for evidence management.
Chain of Custody LEDTBP generally collect zero information on the person depositing the items or the items deposited, much less date or time information LEDTBP items are routinely submitted to evidence operations with zero chain of custody information related to persons or items. Chain of custody records, if they exist, are typically limited to retrieval and disposition. Chain of custody, without collection information is insufficient and inadequate. The routine practice of accepting property with inadequate chain of custody documentation violates universally accepted practices and standards for evidence management.
Security LEDTBP intake receptacles and retrieval procedures require additional security measures in order to prevent diversion or theft and to protect the integrity of agency staff required to retrieve contents from the receptacle. By nature, LEDTBPs provide storage for drugs. Multiple drug types commonly disposed through LEDTBP carry a high risk of abuse, misuse, theft, or diversion. Without adequate physical security provisions and adequate policies and procedures related to the security of LEDTBP, participating agencies create a hazard and risk of theft or diversion of controlled substances or other substances deposited in take-back receptacles. 
Safety Given the uncontrollable nature of the potential contents of a take-back receptacle, multiple health, safety, and exposure risks are directly associated with LEDTBP participation Some common and uncommon safety risks associated with LEDTBP, include, but are not limited to: fentanyl exposure from used patches, exposure to pathogens or harmful substances associated with used syringes and sharps, chemical reactions between incompatible substances, ignition of lithium batteries from medical devices, exposure to biological materials and pathogens related to medical waste.
Drug Storage LEDTBP create an environment where controlled substances are routinely stored in agency lobbies with unlimited public access The routine storage of drugs or controlled substances in public access areas of a law enforcement facility violates universally accepted practices and standards for evidence management.
Storage LEDTBP typically require temporary storage within the evidence vault until provisions for disposition are made, or the agency performs general drug destruction Most agencies do not have sufficient storage space for LEDTBP items. This is a sufficient reason for not participating in LEDTBP. However, given the lack of documentation, chain of custody, lack of packaging protocols, and the safety hazards associated with LEDTBP; storage of program receptacles often violates universally accepted practices and standards for evidence management.
Disposal Unless offset by cooperative agreements with agencies like the DEA, the law enforcement agency typically bears the time and budget resources associated with destruction or disposal. Drug disposal facilities, and access to appropriate drug disposal facilities, is a scarce resource in most regions of the country. The disposal scarcity often creates a longer storage time for LEDTBP items, which results in reduced. property and evidence storage space. Resource costs associated with transport and disposal of LEDTBP items are better invested in other critical evidence management areas.
Time Resources LEDTBP require staff hours to facilitate collection, storage, documentation, and disposal of items. Time is a critical, limited resource for law enforcement agency evidence operations. Unless the agency routinely achieves effective, efficient, and sustainable operations for all other required critical areas of evidence management, LEDTBP participation reduces the agency’s effectiveness for managing and preserving actual evidence and personal property.
Inherent Risk of Diversion Because LEDTBP are known and intended for drug disposal, which includes unused or expired opioids, synthetic narcotic analgesics, or multiple other controlled abusable substances, external or internal diversion or theft is a perpetual risk. The premise and concept of most LEDTBP is to provide easy public access to a service to the community. However, the service provided by LEDTBP also creates a known, publicized public place, hosted by the agency where opioids and controlled substances could logically and reasonably be located at all times. Persons with opioid or other chemical dependencies could easily target LEDTBP receptacles as a prime potential source for theft or diversion. Employees or staff with undisclosed or unknown chemical dependencies would also have easy access, and potentially have greater levels of access than the public to the same agency-provided drug resource.
Budget Resources  At a minimum, agency staff and time resources are required to facilitate most LEDTBP. Many agency LEDTBP also require agency budget resources for travel, transport, and disposal costs associated with disposal. Just as time is a critical, limited resource, agency fiscal resources are also limited commodities for law enforcement agency evidence operations. Unless the agency routinely achieves effective, efficient, and sustainable operations for all other required critical areas of evidence management, LEDTBP participation reduces the agency’s effectiveness for managing and preserving actual evidence and personal property. Resource costs associated with LEDTBP are potentially better invested in other critical evidence management areas.
Unauthorized or Mistaken Disposition LEDTBP typically have no provision for reversing the effect or impact of unauthorized disposition or mistaken, unintentional disposition.  LEDTBP receptacles, policies and procedures typically prescribe a “one way” approach. Once an item has been placed in the container, given the uncontrolled, undocumented deposit; there is no possible provision to mitigate or reverse an unauthorized or mistaken disposition. Even if the item could be safely retrieved, the container would possibly be contaminated by surrounding disposed items. Many participants in LEDTBP dispose of medication, dispose of items on behalf of a family member or dispose of items to prevent access to controlled substances. Mistakes are made. People acting with good intentions can do the wrong thing. Since LEDTBP provide no documentation they are incapable of providing due process to correct wrongful, mistaken or unauthorized disposition.
Liability Agencies own all safety, security, facility, and resource liabilities associated with participation in a LEDTBP. LEDTBP participation involves known or predictable risks to participants and agency staff. There are typically no liability waivers or any associated documentation of deposits in LEDTBP receptacles. Because LEDTBP carry predictable risks, it is highly likely that the agency would assume all associated liability for participation

Tag… Local Retail Pharmacy! You’re It… No Take Backs 

Evidence Management

When you look at the evidence (especially the actual evidence that you’re responsible for preserving, storing, and maintaining custody of – from submission through disposition), continuing to participate in LEDTBP doesn’t make business sense or common sense for a law enforcement agency. 


Yes, I am biased. I’m an advocate for better evidence management practices across the industry. It doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Sure, there are possible exceptions, and your agency might be one of them. The one thing you shouldn’t do is base your LEDTBP participation on “The way we’ve always done it.” 

Retail pharmacies are an important resource for our agencies and our communities. They are also the right place for the safe disposal of unused, expired, or otherwise unwanted pharmaceuticals. Hopefully, you can use some of the ideas and concepts here that may apply to your agency, and be a catalyst for changing the culture of evidence at your agency.