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Dispensing narcotics and other highly abused prescription drugs, pharmacies have always been potential targets for robbery and burglary. But a series of violent crimes over the past year and a half — including the killing of a pharmacist, a teenage clerk and two customers in Medford, N.Y., in June, as well as the murders of a pharmacist in Trenton, N.J., and a store clerk in Sacramento, Calif. — have thrown a spotlight on the dangers faced by pharmacy workers and customers, and have galvanized public opinion for tougher laws.
Over the past five years, pharmacy armed robberies have jumped 81%, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Driving the jump in crime: the ballooning street value of stolen prescription drugs and a steady rise in the abuse of prescription drugs, particularly among teens.
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Among the most heavily abused drugs by teens are schedule II and III narcotics like OxyContin and Vicodin. According to the Office of National Drug Policy, prescription painkillers now are abused more heavily than any drug except marijuana.
“Substance abuse is the single largest contributor to crime in the United States,” noted DEA administrator Michele Leonhart in the DEA’s 2011 “Drugs of Abuse” report. “The use of illicit drugs and the nonmedical use of prescription drugs directly led to the death of 38,000 Americans in 2006.”
Pharmaceutical retailers and manufacturers are responding. OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma, which is behind the RxPatrol crime data and education program, has boosted funding for the Crime Stoppers reward program to $2,500, said Purdue VP and chief security officer Mark Geraci. In cases of murder committed during violent pharmacy crimes, Purdue also has begun offering a $10,000 reward for apprehension.
Drug chains like Walgreens and CVS also are investing in a safer pharmacy environment — and it’s making a difference, said Walgreens spokeswoman Tiffani Washington. “Over the last 12 months, we have seen a 25% decline in robberies ... despite operating approximately 500 more drug stores,” Washington told Drug Store News. “We credit much of this drop to loss- prevention programs and investments we’ve made over the last two years.”
For instance, she said, “We’ve invested millions of dollars in high-resolution video technology over the last year to upgrade and add cameras to the inside and outside of our stores. This enables store staff to provide police with a high-resolution video and photographs of suspects immediately after an incident occurs, as well as share these images with local Crime Stoppers and RxPatrol. We have also invested in training our store employees on how to detect and react to potential robberies.”
In addition, Washington said, “In some markets hit hardest by pharmacy robberies, we proactively installed time-lock security cabinets in our pharmacies as a way to protect our employees by securing inventory of OxyContin and other select medications. It has been a very successful tactic in reducing robberies at Walgreens.”
Purdue’s Geraci acknowledged, “There are some changes that require some funding,” like technology investments. But some process changes don’t take capital so much as a common-sense shift in the way things are done, he said. It can be moves as simple as wiping down counters frequently to make it easier for law enforcement to pull fingerprints from a robbery, and keeping dumpsters and anything else thieves could use to climb onto the roof away from the building. And store lighting, he added, “has a tremendous deterrent effect on a burglar.”
In mid April, the Obama administration weighed in with “Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis,” a plan to cut drug diversion and abuse through tougher monitoring of the drug pipeline, improved drug disposal methods, new ways to educate patients and health providers on preventing diversion, and a crackdown on pill mills and doctor shopping. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration unveiled another weapon to help prevent diversion and abuse by announcing its final Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy, or REMS, requirements for all extended-release and long-acting opioid medicines.
Pharmacy organizations like the National Association of Chain Drug Stores also have swung into action. “NACDS and member companies ... are actively engaged with allies — from local law enforcement to the federal government — to help fight the drug abuse that is at the heart of much crime,” said a representative. “These approaches range from steps intended to ensure that purchases of certain medications are only for the intended purposes of these products,” to awareness abuse campaigns.
In March, the American Pharmacists Association announced a partnership with Cardinal Health and the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, through which pharmacists can obtain training to speak publicly on prescription drug abuse in community settings.
The National Community Pharmacists Association has been an active participant in Purdue’s RxPatrol program since the two groups joined forces three years ago to launch the “Protect Your Pharmacy Now!” initiative. “We’ve had a kit for members since 2008, with resources, discounts on security equipment, etc., and we’ll have programming at this year’s annual convention” on pharmacy crime, said NCPA spokeswoman Valerie Briggs.
One lawmaker to take up the cause is New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. On April 27, Schumer unveiled a legislative plan to crack down on prescription drug theft with tougher sentences for robbing pharmacies of controlled substances. “Federal penalties for pharmacy theft are lenient and do not provide federal law enforcement with all the tools they need,” Schumer noted.