Opiate painkillers and other prescription drugs, officials say, are driving addiction and crime like never before, with addicts singling out the homes of sick or elderly people and posing as potential buyers at open houses just to raid the medicine cabinets. The crimes, and the severity of the nation's drug abuse problem, have so vexed the authorities that they are calling on citizens to surrender old bottles of potent pills like Vicodin, Percocet and Xanax.
On Saturday, the police will set up drop-off stations at a Wal-Mart in Pearland, Tex., a zoo in Wichita, Kan., a sports complex in Peoria, Ariz., and more than 4,000 other locations to oversee aprescription drug take-back program. Coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, it will be the first such effort with national scope.
The take-back day is being held as waves of data suggest the country's prescription drug problem is vast and growing. In 17 states, deaths from drugs — both prescription and illegal — now exceed those from motor vehicle accidents, with opiate painkillers playing a leading role. The number of people seeking treatment for painkiller addiction jumped 400 percent from 1998 to 2008, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
And from rural New England to the densely populated South, law enforcement officials are combating a sharp rise in crime tied to prescription drugs.
"We're seeing people desperately and aggressively trying to get their hands on these pills," said Janet T. Mills, the attorney general in Maine. "Home invasions, robberies, assaults, homicides, thefts — all kinds of crimes are being linked to prescription drugs."
In Harpswell, Me., a masked man broke into the home of a 77-year-old woman in June, knocked her to the ground and snatched her Oxycontin pills at knifepoint. And in Hyannis, Mass., three men armed with a knife, a bat and a revolver broke into a home in 2008, bound the owner's hands and feet with duct tape and tore through drawers and cabinets until they found her husband's Oxycontin.
In other states, the authorities say, pill thieves have infiltrated open houses.
"One will distract the Realtor," said Matthew Murphy, assistant special agent in charge at the D.E.A.'s New England field division in Boston, "while the other goes and rifles through the medicine cabinet looking for pain medication."
Skeptics, pointing to the dearth of evidence that gun buybacks have reduced the gun crime rate, question whether even a national take-back effort will have much impact. And they question whether most people will bother to participate when the take-back programs, unlike the gun programs, do not offer a reward for turning in pills.
There is also the reality that many people intentionally hang on to pain or anxiety medicine for future use.
"They might say, 'I'll take back my Oxy but not my Vicodin,' " said Neale Adams, the district attorney in Aroostook County, Me. He said "easily a third" of the indictments there were related to prescription drug trafficking and abuse.
The officials coordinating Saturday's drug take-back program acknowledge that even with a few thousand drop-off points, it will capture but a tiny fraction of the addictive drugs lining the nation's medicine cabinets.
Nor will it address root causes of addiction, like the overprescribing of powerful drugs. In New York City, the number of oxycodone prescriptions filled at pharmacies rose by 66 percent from 2007 to 2009, with a high density of prescriptions per population in middle-class strongholds like Staten Island and Chelsea.
But Steve Bullock, the attorney general in Montana, said the program was a worthy tool, nonetheless.
"It raises the awareness that we tend to hoard these drugs and hang onto them," he said. "And raising that awareness is one more step in dealing with the overall problem."
In lobbying the public to participate, law enforcement officials and others who battle prescription drug abuse try to educate people on just how lethal keeping pills around can be.
"It's really no different than having a loaded gun just lying around the house," said Joanne Peterson of Raynham, Mass., who started a support group for relatives of prescription drug abusers after her son tried a friend's Oxycontin and became addicted.
While the primary goal of the take-back day is to reduce the volume of pills in households, there may also be environmental benefits. The collected drugs will be incinerated instead of flushed down toilets, which can release them into the water supply.
Incineration is the best way to dispose of controlled prescription drugs, Mr. Murphy said, but the cost of contracting with private disposal companies can be prohibitive. Some communities have gotten creative: in Bella Vista, Ark., the police department bought a small incinerator specifically to destroy pills. And in West Lafayette, Ind., a pet crematory incinerates pills collected by the police at no charge.
Gary Boggs, executive assistant in the office of diversion control at D.E.A. headquarters in Washington, said the agency hoped to coordinate national drug take-back days twice a year until federal law allows other options for safe prescription drug disposal. Several bills before Congress would loosen regulations on who can collect used drugs.
Meanwhile, a growing number of state legislatures are considering bills that would require drug manufacturers to help coordinate and pay for the collection and disposal of leftover prescription drugs.
Bernard Strain of Philadelphia, whose teenage son Timmy died last year after taking prescription methadone pills that had been sitting in a medicine cabinet, said pushing for drug collection programs had become his crusade.
Timmy had been prescribed Percocet after burning his hand on a lawnmower, Mr. Strain said. When his pain persisted, his girlfriend's mother offered him two pills that he thought were extra-strength Percocet but turned out to be methadone, another powerful painkiller. He died that night.
"This is about saving even just one life," said Mr. Strain, who will help supervise a take-back site in Philadelphia on Saturday. "If we can dispose of cans and bottles and oil from our car properly, why can't we dispose of something the size of a dime that can kill you?"