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Kentucky Coroner's Association seeks drug disposal system

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Taylor County Coroner Daniel Cook explains how drug collection process works

By Zac Oakes

A little-known aspect of a county coroner’s job duties has been gaining some recognition around the state, as the Kentucky Coroner’s Association is lobbying for legislation that creates a state protocol for how county coroners are to handle the disposal of drugs recovered from a death scene.

Taylor County Coroner Daniel Cook said this is a relatively unknown aspect of his job as Taylor County Coroner.

When Cook or his deputies arrive at a death scene, particularly a home death, they are there to determine a cause and manner of death. As part of the investigation, they search for evidence that could provide valuable insight for the investigation.

Many times, and even more prevalent over the last few years as the opioid epidemic has brought large increases in overdose deaths, drugs in the home are often viewed as evidence and can be seized from the home as part of the investigation.

Cook clarified that his office does not come in and aim to swipe any drug they can find. As part of his policy, they pay particular attention to prescription drugs and even more specifically, opioids and/or narcotics.

“I’m not worried about anything over-the-counter or anything like that,” Cook said. “But if there is anything prescribed to the deceased person, those are the drugs that we take unless we find a reason to think that they used someone else’s drugs.”

“And we don’t come in to swipe all of the drugs in the house, and we aren’t taking anything to be rude or ugly or anything else, we are doing it because it has officially become evidence in a death investigation.”

Most home deaths result in the coroner’s office taking drugs from the home, Cook said.

Part of Cook’s policy involves keeping the drugs in a secured and monitored location off-site until the investigation is complete, which can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks. From there, the drugs are properly disposed of in DEA drop-off sites, which are located at the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office and Campbellsville Police Department. Those drop-off sites are anonymous, with no logging of individuals that drop off medications.

In certain circumstances, Cook said drugs taken from the scene can be released back if they do not belong to the deceased person.

In Cook’s view, he said taking drugs from a scene serves a two-fold purpose. The first part is collecting evidence that could be critical in a death investigation. The second purpose, Cook said, is trying to help clean up the drug problem locally.

“We want to do what we can to make sure these drugs do not end up in the wrong hands,” Cook said.

He added that it can also be a safeguard that may prevent the home from being broken into later on.

“Drugs are illegal, we know that,” Cook said. “But that isn’t stopping them. People are doing whatever they can to try to get their hands on them and that can often mean breaking in somewhere to get them.”

As it stands now, there is no statewide legislation or policy on how county coroners are to handle the recovery and disposal of drugs taken from a home in the course of investigation. Henry County Coroner James Pollard is leading the cause to create a statewide law or policy that would provide guidelines on how this process should work.

Cook said he knows Pollard and has a great deal of respect for him. Although Cook said he is not currently active in any policy discussions regarding this aspect of the job, he believes Pollard will do his best to work out a deal that protects coroners on the job and makes communities safer.

“If they are going to put something together, I think they should put some things together to keep us safer on the job,” Cook said.

However, Cook hopes that if legislation is passed, the new law would leave room for some local control for each county coroner’s office due to varying budgets across the state for the office.

“Each county knows what works best for them and each county has a different budget,” Cook said.