Those figures point to a crisis, state officials say, and action is being taken on several fronts to help prevent a robbery that could end with someone's death or injury.
Almost no part of Maine has been immune from the wave of drug store heists. Typically the robber says he has a weapon, demands prescription opiates and leaves. In the latest heist, Monday at a CVS pharmacy a short walk from the Capitol complex and governor's mansion, a robber wearing a wig and saying he had a gun left with nearly 500 pills. Hours later, two men were arrested on robbery charges.
No one has been seriously injured yet, but the rapidly escalating number of robberies, including a recent one at a crowded Walmart in Waterville, increases the odds that somebody's going to get hurt, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris said Friday.
"The level of danger to the public has increased," Morris said.
In 2008, Maine had only two pharmacy robberies. The number grew to 24 in 2011. But the state has had 23 pharmacy robberies so far in 2012 even though the year isn't halfway over, said the commissioner, who attributes Maine's 5 percent increase in crime last year to prescription drug abuse.
"If my math is right, by the end of the year, 14 percent of all the drug stores in Maine would have been robbed," Morris said. "Now is that a scary figure?"
But those numbers only tell only part of the story. Maine has now crossed the line where there are more deaths related to prescription drugs — mainly overdoses of opiates— than car crashes. The trend started in 2009, which saw 164 deaths from drugs and 159 from motor vehicle crashes.
The figures and trends haven't escaped the attention of Attorney General William Schneider, who held a summit on prescription drug abuse issues last fall. Early this year, Gov. Paul LePage ordered the creation of the Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force, which has been meeting monthly and meets again next week.
"It's such a pervasive problem in Maine," Schneider said. "I would call it a crisis."
The task force, he said, is focusing on more closely monitoring the use of controlled drugs as a way to discourage abuse as it works toward creating a final list of recommendations. For example, it sees more potential for Maine's existing Prescription Monitoring Program — a database of all transactions for controlled substances dispensed in Maine — to spot doctor shoppers, who seek multiple prescriptions. The database is available online to prescribers and dispensers.
Another idea being examined is a diversion alert to let prescribers know if a patient has a record of drug arrests, Schneider said. The panel is also looking at continuing prescription drug collection programs on a regular basis. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has run previous drug collection programs in Maine, which have netted at least 6 tons of unwanted, unused and outdated drugs.
The staggering figure is roughly equivalent to the drugs Mainers keep in their medicine chests — and which lure robbers, Morris said. Back-to-back increases in burglary rates in Maine in 2010 and 2011 are tied to prescription drugs, Morris said.
Hoping to address the wave of drug store robberies, Morris has called a meeting of representatives of all Maine's drug store chains on July 9 to discuss the problem.
"I'm going to let them free-wheel it and let them come up with ideas," the commissioner said.
Messages left Friday with the Maine Pharmacy Association weren't immediately returned.