The pharmacy was just about to close when a woman wearing baggy clothes and a hoodie walked up to the counter and handed a note stating that she had a gun and wanted the entire supply of OxyContin.
The pharmacist and tech working that night coolly complied to get the woman out of the store as quickly as possible.
“They stayed calm and did what they were told,” said Blaine Whitney, owner of Whitney’s Family Supermarket, Corinth, Maine, which houses the pharmacy.
No one was hurt on that cold night this past January, and the robber — who reportedly stole about 5,000 OxyContin pills — was subsequently arrested and charged. But the incident rocked the 8-year-old rural store, which never experienced an incident like that.
“It’s concerning; everyone is at risk,” Whitney said.
While most patients take pain medications responsibly and legitimately, illegal trafficking and abuse of prescription medicines has become a serious public health problem in the United States, and has been the cause of pharmacy robberies.
Read more: Healthy Signs for In-Store Clinics
Opioids are particularly troublesome because they can be dangerously addictive. Prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, opioids include such brands as Vicodin (hydrocodone), Dilaudid (hydromorphone) and OxyContin (oxycodone hydrochloride) and Opana (oxymorphone).
“These drugs are so powerful that abusers will do almost anything for it,” said Whitney.
That includes robbery — and sometimes murder.
The nation’s pharmacy community is still coping with the June 2011 murder of four people inside an independent pharmacy in Medford, N.Y., part of Long Island’s Suffolk County.
A man reportedly walked into the pharmacy and, without announcing a robbery, methodically shot and killed the store’s pharmacist, store clerk and two customers before leaving with thousands of hydrocodone pills and other medication. The incident was described as “the most cold-blooded robbery-homicide in Suffolk County history.” The man was apprehended and sentenced to five consecutive life terms.
Dedicated pharmacies are often the targets of opioid-related thefts, but supermarket-based businesses are far from immune.
Along with Whitney’s, dozens of other pharmacies inside food retailers have experienced hold-ups.
“This class of drugs is the most common target of pharmacy robberies by drug seekers to sell or satisfy their own addiction,” said Cathy Polley, a registered pharmacist and vice president of health and wellness at the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. “To those seeking the drug, it doesn’t matter if it’s in a traditional chain drug store or a supermarket pharmacy.”
A Sweetbay Supermarket in Bradenton, Fla., knows that all too well. At 2 p.m. on a typical day this past May, a man walked into the supermarket and jumped over a pharmacy counter. Armed with a box cutter, he demanded oxycodone. The pharmacist gave him the pills and the man left.
After releasing a surveillance image of the man, the suspect was arrested and charged.
Among other supermarket-based incidents, according to reports:
• Twin sisters allegedly tried to rob a Marsh Supermarket in Bloomington, Ind., of OxyContin using a toy gun.
• A Manchester, N.H., Osco pharmacy inside a Shaw’s supermarket was robbed of oxycodone after a woman presented a note that demanded the drug and implied she had a weapon.
• A gunman robbed a pharmacy located inside an Albertsons grocery store in Spokane, Wash., using a semi-automatic pistol. The man stole the pharmacy’s OxyContin supply.
The pharmacist on duty the night of the robbery inside Whitney’s Family Supermarket was 30-year-old Erica (who did not want her last name used). She had worked at the store for a mere three months.
It seemed like an ordinary business day until a woman with several layers of clothing walked up to the pharmacy and handed the note to the pharmacy tech on duty. The tech immediately passed the note to Erica. Once she read it, Erica went into survival mode.
“I kind of zoned out, and did as I was told,” she told SN.
In her six years as pharmacist, Erica had never been robbed, although she always knew it was a possibility.
While she has no plans to leave the profession, the crime changed the way she performs her job.
“I’m definitely more cautious. I look at people a lot harder,” she said.
Erica worked at Rite Aid prior to coming to Whitney’s, which she thought would be a more secure environment.
“You would think supermarket pharmacies would be safer, but that’s not the case,” she said.
Indeed, just because supermarkets are bigger and have more people around doesn’t mean they can’t be targeted for crime, said Amelia Arnold, clinical pharmacist for Community Pharmacies, Augusta, Maine, which leases the pharmacy inside Whitney’s supermarket. Community Pharmacies operates 10 pharmacies in the state of Maine, seven of which are located in grocery stores.
Community Pharmacies experienced five robberies so far this year, compared to none in 2011. OxyContin has been the drug of choice in each case.
“It’s highly addictive, and there’s a high street value for the medication,” Arnold noted.
Drug abusers make the most dangerous criminals because many are high at the time of the offense, said Arnold.
“They’re not in their right minds,” she said.
In response to the Corinth robbery, Community Pharmacies reviewed security procedures with all its stores. Pharmacy personnel were reminded that, in case of a robbery, they should remain calm and give the robber what he/she wants so that they leave the store.
The Corinth incident also prompted the company to discourage would-be robbers from using a disguise. Signs have been placed at the pharmacy counter stating that all customers must remove hoods, hats and sunglasses for service.
Likewise, its pharmacists no longer respond to phone inquiries about whether certain painkillers are in stock.
See Sidebar: Take Off Your Hats
Some pharmacies have stopped carrying or restricted sales of oxycodone. But Community Pharmacies remains committed to keeping all opioids on its shelves.
“It’s hard to operate a business if you don’t carry medications patients need,” Arnold said. “OxyContin is a legitimate medication that many patients rely on, so we will continue carrying it.”
Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry is working to reduce abuse. Take Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin. Approved in 1995 by the FDA as a narcotic painkiller, OxyContin treats moderate to severe pain caused by medical conditions like arthritis, back pain and cancer.
Abusers often chew, snort or inject OxyContin for a heroin-like high. In 2010, Purdue began selling a reformulated version that makes it harder to do so.
“Since the reformulation of OxyContin two years ago, data from the RxPatrol database shows that the demand for OxyContin has gone down significantly,” said Mark Geraci, Purdue’s vice president of corporate security. RxPatrol is a Purdue-run database that tracks pharmacy thefts.
STAMFORD, Conn. — Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, created RXpatrol.com in 2003 to help pharmacies protect themselves from crime and to assist law enforcement in investigating robberies.
The web-based program tracks patterns, trends and similarities, and sends the information to law enforcement groups to help apprehend assailants.
The site includes a database that law enforcers, pharmacists and loss prevention officials can access to see where robberies have taken place.
“It’s a tool for pharmacists to be aware of what’s going on in their neighborhood,” Luis Bauza, Purdue’s director of investigations, told SN.
RXpatrol.com has about 6,300 members, 55% of whom are in law enforcement.
Pharmacists can use the site to report a crime in their store. Once the incident is confirmed with police, it is uploaded into the database. Members can sign up for Twitter alerts so that they can be immediately notified of criminal activity in their areas. Purdue Pharma also provides in-store decals for pharmacies to use to notify the public that they are members of the RxPatrol.
“The more secure the pharmacy environment appears to the common criminal, the less likely that pharmacy will become victim of a crime,” Bauza said.
Read more: Healthy Signs for In-Store Clinics
Supermarket-based pharmacies need to be just as vigilant as standalone ones, Bauza said.
Bauza encourages supermarkets to remove fliers and posters from store windows. Such materials can obscure the passers-by view into the store, thereby making it more susceptible to crime. He also recommends that pharmacy personnel take notice of anyone standing near the pharmacy.
“Just because a guy appears to be looking at food doesn’t mean he is not staking out the pharmacy,” he said.
STAMFORD, Conn. — Drug-seeking criminals will typically assess a pharmacy prior to the crime.
Some will call the pharmacy in advance asking if it stocks a particular pain medication. Others will visit the store to evaluate staffing and security arrangements.
“They’re looking for an easy target,” a security specialist says in a pharmacy crime prevention video posted on rxpatrol.com, a website run by the maker of OxyContin.
To deter a crime, rxpatrol.com recommends that pharmacy personnel greet every person who browses the aisles of the pharmacy so that they know they are being watched.
Another deterrent is to put up signs stating that all controlled substances are stored in a time-release safe (even if they are not).
A growing number of pharmacies are going even further by putting up signs stating that sunglasses, hats and “hoodies” must be removed before approaching the pharmacy counter.
• In 2010, about 12 million Americans (age 12 or older) reported nonmedical use of prescription painkillers in the past year.
• The quantity of prescription painkillers sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices was 4 times larger in 2010 than in 1999.
• Nearly half a million emergency room visits in 2009 were due to people misusing or abusing prescription painkillers.
• Non-medical use of prescription painkillers cost health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health care costs.
• Prescription painkiller overdoses killed nearly 15,000 people in the U.S. in 2008, up from 4,000 in 1999.
• Many states report problems with “pill mills” where doctors prescribe large quantities of painkillers to people who don’t need them medically. Some people also obtain prescriptions from multiple prescribers by “doctor shopping.”
Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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