More prescription drug thefts hit pharmacies

Tuesday, September 7, 2010 | 5:25 p.m. CDT; updated 5:59 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 7, 2010

GLENPOOL, Okla. — Less than a couple months after Nick Curtin opened a pharmacy in suburban Tulsa in 2008, the store was burglarized twice in one week. And just last year a masked man robbed him at gunpoint, making off with 1,800 pills.

Curtin admits it could easily happen again, and there's not much he can do to stop it.

"It's one of those things. There's only so many things you can do," he said.

Across the country, pharmacy robberies are on the rise, partly because of the increasing demand for prescription drugs, according to law enforcement officers and industry officials. Prescription painkillers rank second behind marijuana as the country's most common illegal drug problem, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

There are no official numbers on how many pharmacies are robbed each year nationwide. The federal government does not track them, and states vary in how they classify the crimes: Some are logged as break-ins, others as drug thefts. But federal drug officials, drug companies, pharmacies, state authorities and local police departments nationwide all say they've noticed an increase in recent years.

"It's not surprising that pharmacies have become the object of crime, given the popularity of prescription drugs," said Barbara Carreno, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman. "Communities must take this threat as seriously as the threat posed by street drugs like heroin and cocaine."

Robbers hold up pharmacies in upscale neighborhoods and those full of blight. Stores sitting just off highways and nestled in towns small and large have also been hit. The most valuable pills are the heavy painkillers that on the street can go for up to $60 a tablet.

"It's just unfortunate that people who have become addicted to drugs, they know where they can get a source of a reliable high," Curtin said.

In Ohio, officials say the problem is mainly armed robbery of pharmacies. There were 32 in 2007, and that more than doubled to 68 in 2008, according to state records.

In Oklahoma only one pharmacy reported an armed robbery in 2007, but that shot to 12 in 2008. Last year, there were 19. Burglaries went from 31 in 2007 to 42 in 2008. In 2009, the tally was 51, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.

"There isn't any doubt we've seen a spike in the past five years or so in pharmacy break-ins," said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the bureau.

Missouri has also seen more drug thefts at pharmacies in the past few years, said Mike Boeger, administrator of the Missouri Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs.

In 2007, the state received 518 drug theft reports; in 2008, it logged 606. Then in 2009, the number dipped to 490, but through August of this year, Missouri has received 360 reports. Boeger said that would put the state back on track to have more than 500 by the year's end.

In many of those cases, the employees are the thieves, Boeger said. One girl stole more than 49,000 doses of the painkiller hydrocodone before getting caught.

"They're stealing us blind every day," Boeger said, "hundreds of thousands of doses."

One high-profile pharmacy case was in Oklahoma last year, when pharmacist Jerome Ersland pulled a gun on two robbers. Ersland shot one, a 16-year-old boy, in the head, and chased the other away. He returned to the store and pumped five more bullets into the teenager, which the coroner said were the fatal shots. Ersland is awaiting trial for first-degree murder, and he says he acted in self-defense.

More common incidents are like the one in Missoula, Mont., where a woman demanded all the OxyContin and oxycodone in the store and made off with 1,900 pills worth about $35,000 on the street, or the one in Boynton Beach, Fla., where a teenager ordered six people to the ground at gunpoint and fled with more than 1,500 painkillers.

The increase of robberies has some employees locking up powerful narcotics such as oxycodone in safes, installing security cameras and using trickery — one pharmacist in suburban Oklahoma City filled bottles labeled "hydrocodone" with M&Ms — to thwart drug-seeking burglars.

"Pharmacies just typically haven't had to deal with this," says Rick Zenuch, director of law enforcement liaison and education at Purdue Pharma L.P. "I don't think we want to get to the point where we see teller-style windows."

Law enforcement officials said there's not much they can do to prevent the robberies, and they don't have the extra staffing to step up patrols of pharmacies.

Larger drugstore chains such as CVS and Walgreens say they have programs in place to protect employees and customers. They wouldn't elaborate, though Walgreens recently upgraded its surveillance system to digital to have clearer images.

Curtin, the pharmacist in suburban Tulsa, said he's more jittery because he has been hit three times, but the looming threat isn't enough to drive him out of town.

"I'm trained to help people," he said. "I really can't stop doing that."

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Carlos Sanchez September 7, 2010 | 5:49 p.m.

Maybe the pharmacists and the other employees should look into the CCW Programs in their respective states.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 7, 2010 | 10:03 p.m.

Yep, that sure seemed to work well in the case cited in the article.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 8, 2010 | 4:57 a.m.

@John Schultz do you suggest serving milk and cookies?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 8, 2010 | 11:19 a.m.

I suggest that government criminalization of some drugs is causing a black market opportunity for criminals. The article states that many of the thefts are by employees:

"In many of those cases, the employees are the thieves, Boeger said. One girl stole more than 49,000 doses of the painkiller hydrocodone before getting caught.

"They're stealing us blind every day," Boeger said, "hundreds of thousands of doses.""

Just how is mowing employees down with a gun as you propose going to fix the problem?

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 8, 2010 | 12:48 p.m.

@John Schultz Just how is mowing employees down with a gun as you propose going to fix the problem?

I was talking about the ones holding them up not the employees. Geez Louis. If the owners are not smart enough to have cameras installed and secured that is a whole other issue.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 8, 2010 | 1:23 p.m.

So if the majority of thefts are inside-related as the article claims, and owners are not stupid as you suggest, why the cry for CCW by you? Would you also advocate that all Wal-Mart employees be provided company pistols to prevent shoplifters and Breaktime clerks be given RPGs to take out drivers who don't pay for their gas? Criminals should be caught, incarcerated, and made to pay restitution to those they have injured. Calling for pharmacists to look into CCW programs doesn't help much in that goal.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 8, 2010 | 2:05 p.m.

@John Schultz A lot of pharmacies are not that big of stores and some of them are targets of the outlaw criminals as this story portrays as well as the inside criminals too. My comment is not about the inside the job criminal.

There are probably countless stories across our nation of late night pharmacies being robbed and employees killed. Would that have changed if the employee had a CCW and was trained in the proper use of a weapon? Good question all employees who work late nights and who have been the victims of a robbery should ask themselves.

Why shouldn't owners of these small stores look into the CCW program for themselves and for those employees they know they can trust with the responsibility of a CCW. I'm not talking any other business as you so wildly went off on a rouge jaunt over but these small pharmacies alone. Other businesses obviously have different needs and issues.

Also John you fail to realize that these pharmacy owners do night deposits at times so there is another layer of protection.

It sounds like you are against individual citizens arming and defending themselves by your post above that is guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Either you believe in the right of personal defense or you are only making a mockery of the issue by hiding behind your pocket copy of the Constitution.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 8, 2010 | 2:32 p.m.

No Carlos, I am not against self-defense. I'm trying to get you to realize that a CCW isn't necessarily going to stop these crimes. People who are drug-addled or criminals don't think rationally and the minute possibility of a victim having a CCW is not going to enter into their minds very often. People in Columbia have robbed gun stores for crying out loud. Most thieves don't think they will be caught and that's why they do what they do.

Also don't forget that no employer has the right to make someone carry a gun and possibly kill another person to protect their property. What if the employees don't want to carry a weapon for whatever reason? What's your solution then? The employee could pull the gun and be killed by the criminal, instead of just handing over the pills and letting the police investigate based off surveillance photos. If I was a pharmacist, I certainly wouldn't expect my employees to use deadly force to protect a few hundred pills. Property is much different than your own body.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 8, 2010 | 3:42 p.m.

@John Schultz I never said a CCW was the end all so do not put words in my mouth or in my posts. A CCW does though offer a second level of offense if that option does happen to allow that to come into play. No I did not state employees be required to carry CCW as you state but the option should be offered to them non the less and remember that CCW goes everywhere with that person not not just home or goes everywhere. You are also forgetting that a lot of late night places that stay open often times have two people on shift which a lot of dumber than dumb criminals forget.

We can sit here and go about this all day as I know you are only posting to put down anything I post as is per your usual motive but all I was suggesting is that employers and employees of late night pharmacies and other forms of late night business look into possibly getting CCW training and certification so if they can in the right instance defend themselves if the opportunity comes up.

Not all employers or companies condone the carrying of a CCW but we do not live in the world of Candy Land anymore and society is not a very sweet place after dark no matter where you live these days.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 8, 2010 | 10:15 p.m.

So if the CCW isn't the holy grail, why propose it? Is that all ya brought? You're the one with the motives, I'm bringing logic to the party.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 9, 2010 | 6:40 a.m.

@John Schultz you miss the obvious point of it being another option,just like Pepper Spray,Tasers and other hand to hand or person to person combat type of weapons. They are all options.

The only thing you bring to the table constantly is strife and more argumentative baiting.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 9, 2010 | 8:17 a.m.

Oh yes, of course. Your attitude never enters into the discussion here or elsewhere, correct? I humbly apologize for asking you to defend your arguments. How juvenile of me to do so!

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 9, 2010 | 8:42 a.m.


(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 9, 2010 | 10:06 a.m.

Nuff said?

(Report Comment)

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