GORHAM — Brandon Archibald knew something was off about the man in the oversized coat, hat and sunglasses approaching the Community Pharmacy in Gorham on April 16. Archibald, a pharmacist, stepped to the register as the man came in and made his way to the back of the store.
The man passed Archibald a note, one hand hovering at his hip, threatening at a possible weapon.
“I barely even read it because I just knew what it was,” Archibald recalls. “It said, ‘Give me all your oxy 15s and 30s. Don’t do anything stupid, don’t set off any alarms, don’t call the police. I have a weapon, I don’t want to use it,’ that sort of thing. I went into autopilot, went to the shelf, took a couple bottles of each, put them in a bag.”
The robber was after oxycodone, a powerful narcotic painkiller, in 15- and 30-milligram doses. He took the drugs and left.
Less than a month later, the man was back for more drugs. That time, another Community Pharmacy employee handed over the painkillers, telling the man that he didn’t have to do this, that he could get help.
“The [robber] told him he was sorry,” Archibald said.
But not sorry enough to stay away. The robber returned for a third time on the morning of July 1, again demanding drugs from Archibald in a note.
“He actually apologized to me, too,” Archibald said.
The pharmacist felt a little sympathy for the robber — but not much, he said.
The thief got in a car and sped away, but not before an employee spotted his license plate. After a brief chase, police arrested John J. Vernon Jr., a 28-year-old Saco man. He was charged with robbery, stealing drugs, eluding an officer, reckless conduct, criminal speeding and operating a motor vehicle after suspension of his driver’s license in connection with all three incidents.
The Gorham robberies are among 29 pharmacy robberies so far this year, an unprecedented pace in Maine. That tops all of 2011, when the the state counted 24 pharmacy robberies.
“We’re averaging one a week,” said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Maine’s battle against drugstore robberies mirrors a national trend. The number of armed robberies at pharmacies in the United States ballooned 81 percent, from 380 to 686, between 2006 and 2010, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Health and law enforcement officials blame the crime surge on soaring rates of prescription drug abuse.
Of the 169 drug overdose deaths in Maine in 2010, 95 percent involved prescription drugs, according to a 2012 report on substance abuse trends in Maine. Drug overdoses killed more people than car crashes that year.
Pharmacists are struggling to balance their relationships with customers against the need to protect themselves. Shaken by the robberies — often brazen daytime holdups involving the threat of a weapon — some smaller Maine pharmacies now refuse to carry the most commonly abused drugs, posting signs in their windows to ward off criminals, said Kenneth McCall, president of the Maine Pharmacy Association, which represents nearly 500 pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and pharmacy students.
“The problem is only getting worse even though we have taken some steps” to beef up security, he said.
Pharmacies in many states are stepping up security with high-tech surveillance cameras, silent alarms and employee panic buttons, according to Matthew C. Murphy, who formerly headed up pharmaceutical investigations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and now consults for drug companies as vice president of The Pharma Compliance Group of Milford, Mass.
One national pharmacy chain put a tracking device in a bogus pack of OxyContin, which led to the capture of several robbery suspects, he said.
“These mechanisms are along the same lines as a bank really,” he said. “One person’s looking for money, the other’s looking for these powerful narcotics.”
Supply and demand
Robbers are on the hunt for narcotic painkillers, methadone, anti-anxiety medications and other controlled drugs to get high on, to sell or both.
Oxycodone fetches about $1 a milligram on the street, making a bottle of 100 30-milligram pills worth $3,000. The price can creep even higher in areas where law enforcement has cracked down on illicit painkillers, said John Morris, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety.
“The supply and demand curve works very well. Less supply, up go the prices,” he said.
Pharmacy robbers don’t always fit the typical profile of a criminal, Morris said. Some are soccer moms who were prescribed opiates to relieve pain after surgery and got hooked, he said.
“These are people who are sick with an addiction and that’s why they’re doing these rash, unbelievable behaviors,” he said.
Maine has been lucky that no one has been physically injured in a drugstore robbery. Two pharmacy robberies in Long Island, N.Y., last year led to the deaths of six people, including a federal agent who mistakenly was killed as he intervened in a holdup.
“At the rate we’re going, we’re going to have over 50 pharmacy robberies this year, and at some point someone’s going to get hurt,” Morris said.
Morris convened a meeting of law enforcement and pharmacy representatives on July 12 to discuss how to keep pharmacists and customers safe. A state task force has been working on a plan to combat prescription drug abuse in Maine. The panel reported to Gov. Paul LePage in June on expanding disposal of unwanted medications, implementing a statewide program to alert doctors when their patients are involved in drug crimes and strengthening a program that tracks patients’ prescription histories.
As efforts to rein in prescription drug abuse succeed, addicts find other ways to get the medications they seek, according to Marcella Sorg, who directs the drug and alcohol research program at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.
“As we improve our monitoring of prescription drugs, we might expect that there would be increases elsewhere, such as pharmacy robberies,” she said.
Pathways to security
Joe Bruno, chairman of the prescription drug abuse task force and president and CEO of Community Pharmacies, said he doesn’t want to see additional security measures mandated for Maine pharmacies. Regulations require the use of surveillance cameras, but many smaller pharmacies can’t afford to hire guards or adopt other security measures, he said.
The four robberies at his pharmacies this year have cost thousands of dollars, Bruno said. One of his employees left her job after a robbery because she “couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
Still, his pharmacies will continue stocking sought-after painkillers because customers need them, Bruno said. A cancer patient in chronic pain shouldn’t be denied relief with medication because criminals have intimidated pharmacists, he said.
“This isn’t just a routine medicine,” Bruno said. “You want to make people comfortable. I’m not going to buckle down to robbers dominating the lives of other people.”
When he became a pharmacist in 1978, robbers occasionally broke in at night to steal drugs such as Valium, he said. Today, the criminals are much bolder.
“It’s no longer as open as it used to be,” he said of the pharmacy business. “And that’s too bad.”
Along with the usual information about how and when to take medications, pharmacists now also counsel customers to lock up pain pills and avoid telling people they’re taking them.
National chains and small independent pharmacies alike are faced with keeping stores safe while maintaining customers’ trust.
“Part of that trust is access,” said Ashley Flower, a spokeswoman for Rite Aid. “We don’t want to risk that.”
Rite Aid, which has been hit by many of this year’s robberies in Maine, has invested millions of dollars in surveillance, training and equipment, she said. The chain has 79 stores in the state.
Each national pharmacy chain typically lays out its stores in the same way, which could appeal to some robbers trying to get their hands on painkillers, said Murphy, who also oversaw the DEA’s drug diversion efforts in New England as assistant special agent in charge of the Boston office.
Criminals can spot the security cameras in one store and know where the cameras are located in many other stores in the same chain, he said.
“They could walk into one [store] in one part of the state and not have to worry about surveillance cameras,” he said. “They know they’re there when they go into another one at another end of the state.”
Arming pharmacists has arisen as a controversial topic in light of the national rise in drugstore robberies.
Archibald, for one, doesn’t want to carry a gun, even after his ordeal with the two robberies in Gorham.
“What’s going to happen is if a pharmacist pulls out a gun, then next time the robber’s going to know and they’ll just come in guns ablazing or there will be five of them and they’ll hold us all hostage,” he said.
The rash of drugstore holdups has caused alarm among students getting into the pharmacy profession, according to McCall, associate professor and chairman of the pharmacy practice department at the University of New England’s College of Pharmacy. Before students are sent off to work in pharmacies as part of their coursework, they’re taught how to respond in a robbery — don’t be a hero and hand over the drugs.
“Most robbers are apprehended by police,” McCall said. “It needs to be known that seldom does it pay off in the end.”
Over the last three years, about 80 percent of pharmacy robbers in Maine were caught, according to Morris. A robbery with a weapon is a Class A crime that carries a sentence of up to 25 years.
Pharmacy robberies can be prosecuted as state or federal crimes, depending on the circumstances of each incident.
Archibald said something needs to be done to put a stop to all the robberies, but he’s not sure how to deter addicts who are desperate to get their next fix.
“I’m frustrated because I feel like a victim. I feel like I’m a sitting duck,” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t know what to do about it.”