HAZARD – Flames shot skyward each time the steely beast slowly opened its wide, black mouth.

With an insatiable appetite Operation UNITE’s new “Pill Dragon” digested course after course of prescription medications in the parking lot behind the Hazard Police Department, drawing curious gazes from dozens of passers-by.

The “dragon” – one of two portable incinerators on loan from the Kentucky Army National Guard to UNITE – made its debut during Perry County’s “Medicine Cabinet Clean-out Day” held Friday, August 6.

“This incinerator will go a long way to help our rural law enforcement agencies and families dispose of prescription drugs in an environmentally friendly way in our 29 counties, ” said Fifth District Congressman Hal Rogers, speaking at a gathering across the street in Amphitheater Park. “This is a great partnership between UNITE, the Guard and PRIDE.”

Within a few hours the dragon had consumed 1,601 pills brought in from the public along with old evidence for the Hazard Police Department and UNITE’s Kentucky River Region drug task force.

Powered by diesel fuel, the dragon burns at up to 2,000 degrees and can safely and efficiently reduce medications to ash for disposal, said Dan Smoot, law enforcement director for UNITE.

“For years the generally accepted method for disposing of old or left over medications was to flush it down the toilet,” noted Karen Engle, director of the UNITE and PRIDE organizations. “That practice, however, has been strongly discouraged for the past decade because of concerns about the potential health and environmental effects of antibiotics, hormones, painkillers, depressants and stimulants making their way into our water system and our soil.”

Another troubling fact is that most teens turn to the family medicine cabinet for drugs. The most recent Monitoring the Future study found seven of the top 10 drugs being abused by high-school seniors are legal prescription or over-the-counter medications.

“If you have outdated or unused medications you are a potential target for someone looking for that next high,” Engle said. “Teens believe that because these drugs are prescribed they are safe, but that is not true. Aside from the fact that taking or giving away medicine that is not prescribed to you is illegal, even at small doses the potential exists for serious health effects –including death.”

The Pill Dragons, to be based in Prestonsburg and London, will be taken to counties across the region for similar pill take-back events hosted by UNITE community coalition or PRIDE groups.