Pharmacy officials are reacting to a wave of OxyContin thefts in East Coast pharmacies.
With increasing frequency, drug abusers and dealers, often brandishing guns, are bursting into pharmacies demanding that frightened pharmacists hand over all their OxyContin, the opioid painkiller that has rapidly become the street drug of choice.
There have been at least 700 OxyContin (oxycodone HCl, extended-release tablets, Purdue Pharma) thefts during the past 18 months, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration's Office of Diversion Control. Florida tallied 82 thefts, compared with 90 in Pennsylvania, 69 in Kentucky, 74 in Ohio, and 34 in California.
Massachusetts pharmacies have also been targeted. There were at least 14 robberies in a recent six-week period. Police officials attribute the bulk of the crimes to two gangs of young men who hit pharmacies near closing time and made a fast getaway. In a recent robbery in Woburn, a pharmacist and two clerks were bound with duct tape by two armed robbers who made off with OxyContin and cash.
In response to the upsurge in robberies, the Massachusetts pharmacy board decided last month to put pharmacies on "high alert" with a letter urging them to retrain their employees about crime awareness, check their security equipment, give police their hours of operation, and request more frequent police visits. The state police chiefs association has agreed to forward a board letter to its members encouraging them to beef up pharmacy surveillance.
Media hype is partly to blame for the OxyContin crime wave. Stories abound about the painkiller's $1-per-mg street value, the powerful high one gets from abusing it, and easy availability, according to Massachusetts pharmacy officials. "The media created a firestorm that has resulted in a rash of armed robberies, so pharmacists are really feeling edgy about going to work in the morning," said Charles Young, executive director of the pharmacy board. "I can just imagine these pharmacists already overwhelmed with work responsibilities and now they've got to look up every three seconds to see if someone's standing there with a gun."
When some Massachusetts pharmacies posted signs in windows to tell would-be robbers that there's no OxyContin inside, the pharmacy board reminded them that they are required by law to stock common drugs, including OxyContin.
One New England chain stopped stocking the powerful painkiller in its stores early last month. J. Sainbury's Shaws Supermarkets and Star Markets still fill OxyContin scripts, but the drug must be special ordered on a request basis. "We are getting kudos from our customers and the general public for our new policy, which was instituted as a matter of safety for our customers and associates," said spokesman Bernard Rogan.
The rash of OxyContin robberies is cause for "serious concern for the safety of pharmacy staff and patients," said Carmelo Cinqueonce, executive director of the Massachusetts Pharmacists Association, which is cooperating with the pharmacy board and state police. He added that some pharmacists feel the board's position on stocking OxyContin "has put a target on their heads." But others commend the board for reminding pharmacies that they must stock OxyContin. They contend that "it's not the right move" for supermarkets to take OxyContin off their shelves because "it will draw criminals to other community pharmacies," he added.
Meanwhile, in southwest Virginia, where so-called hillbilly heroin has hit hard, the Pulaski Police Department may help the six pharmacies in town fingerprint patrons they suspect of trying to fraudulently obtain OxyContin. Chief of Police G. W. Roche told Drug Topics that the inkless fingerprints would be stored with the script at the pharmacy. If it were later determined a crime had been committed, the print could be used as evidence.
"Pharmacists wouldn't fingerprint everyone," Roche said. "But Virginia law allows pharmacists to require identification when they fill any Schedule II through V prescriptions, and a fingerprint is ID. Please understand that I'm a civil libertarian myself and I have absolute and complete empathy with anyone in severe pain. But at the same time, we have a problem with abuse and diversion."
Carol Ukens. High alert: OxyContin thieves target pharmacies.