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."