PORTLAND — Maine’s U.S. attorney announced Wednesday a renewed cooperative effort aimed at cracking down on crimes related to the abuse of opiate-based prescription drugs, a scourge in which Maine ranks No. 1 in the country.

Thomas Delahanty II said at a news conference at his office that local, state and federal law enforcement have teamed up to combat the problem that has triggered robberies and burglaries of Maine pharmacies.

The number of pharmacy robberies and burglaries in this state shot up five-fold from 2009 through 2010. OxyContin appears to be the drug of choice. There were more than 20 armed robberies of drugstores in Maine involving the highly-sought prescription drugs. The total value of the drugs taken was roughly $100,000.

Abusers also get the drugs through false and forged prescriptions and lie to doctors in an effort to get extra supplies. Some take too many legally prescribed pills and others rely on friends or family members for painkillers to help ease a backache or overcome sleeplessness, Delahanty said.

In a five-year period ending in 2002, there were about 75 drug-related deaths per year in Maine. During the following five-year period, ending in 2007, 132 people in Maine died taking the drugs. In 2009, there were 179 deaths in Maine due to overdoses.

“These are staggering numbers that can’t be ignored,” Delahanty said.

One of the strategies aimed at addressing these statistics is the so-called prescription drug take-back program. In September, 96 local, county and state law enforcement agencies throughout the state cooperated with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to set up 121 collection sites where people could take their unused medications for safe disposal.

Those efforts yielded tons of pills that were incinerated.

Earlier coordinated efforts between state and federal justice agencies had them working with pharmacies, doctors, organizations and various associations to better monitor prescriptions to identify fraud and abuse, Delahanty said.

Resulting changes included development of electronic prescribing concepts, requiring more positive identification, participation in a prescription-monitoring program and continued collaboration among state and federal law enforcement related to robberies and prescription fraud, he said. Maine’s Legislature recently passed a state law requiring pharmacies to install surveillance video cameras, he said.

Lewiston police Chief Michael Bussiere said Wednesday that he’s met with Delahanty to discuss the problem and possible solutions. Stepped-up efforts are needed by law enforcement, as well as state and federal prosecutors, Bussiere said.

Delahanty said his office is prepared to continue working with district attorneys and the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

Maine’s newly sworn Attorney General William Schneider attended Wednesday’s news conference. Having recently left the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Schneider said he expects to work closely with the federal agency to develop cooperative strategies.

Maine was recently identified as ranking highest among states for abuse of prescription drugs.

Although no one has explained why populations in rural states appear more likely to experience the problem than metropolitan states, Schneider said it might have something to do with the established pipelines for illegal drugs, such as heroin and crack, which skirt states with smaller urban populations.

Prescription drugs can be found as readily in rural states as in those with large population centers at pharmacies, nursing homes and other places with elderly or infirm residents, he said.

Among the burglaries and armed robberies in Maine 2009-10:

* Rite Aid, 81 Main St., Livermore Falls, Jan. 25, 2009, night break-in, $21,537 value.

* Rite Aid, 26 Mayville Road, Bethel, March 16, 2009, night break-in, $6,283.71 value.

* Rite Aid, 987 Lisbon St., Lewiston, Dec. 30, 2009, armed robbery, $1,489 value.

* Rite Aid, 665 Roosevelt Trail, Naples, May 10, 2010, armed robbery, $6,085.89 value.

* CVS, 446 Sabattus St., Lewiston, June 5, 2010, armed robbery, $8,193.59 value.

* Spruce Mountain Pharmacy, Jay, July 25, 2010, night break-in, $109 value.

* Rite Aid, 987 Lisbon St., Lewiston, Nov. 24, 2010, armed robbery, $1,153.23.

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