They used to be the friendly neighborhood place where you went to get razor blades or Band-Aids, toiletries or the occasional prescription the doctor gave you. Today, as America's population uses more prescription medications than at any other time in history, the face of America's pharmacies is changing. And, in some sinister cases, the activity taking place inside these stores is far from legitimate.
You've probably noticed that your pharmacy now has a video surveillance system and maybe a uniformed guard, and the pharmacist may have to retrieve your order from a locked safe. At closing time, they might roll down a metal cage to cover the counter or let loose guard dogs to patrol inside the store. This isn't your father's pharmacy anymore, and the reason is a shame: Prescription drug abuse has now become an epidemic in America.
It's become a much bigger problem than street sales of drugs like heroin, marijuana and cocaine. The Drug Enforcement Administration says some 7 million Americans now use prescription drugs for non-medical reasons — and most of the abused drugs are narcotic painkillers containing OxyContin and hydrocodone. Because pharmacies often stock large quantities of such pills, they have become ground zero for both drug pushers (who know each pill can fetch up to $80 on the street) and desperate drug addicts intent on getting what they want.
But in some cases the theft of these costly drugs is perpetrated from the inside — by drug store employees who use their position as a front for their illicit activities.
Federal investigators have gotten wise to both these groups.
The DEA confirms it is currently investigating half a dozen Walgreens drug stores across Florida after they red-flagged a massive spike in OxyContin purchases. One store, for example, bought 95,000 doses of the painkiller in 2009. Last year, that same store bought more than 2 million doses. The DEA says that's about 30 percent more than a typical pharmacy would buy, so it served the nation's largest drug store chain with federal search warrants and is currently pouring over paperwork to try to determine where all those narcotics went.
The DEA seems serious about stemming the flow of these addictive drugs from complacent pharmacies. In February, the agency found similar OxyContin activity at two CVS drug stores in Sanford, Fla., and suspended their licenses to sell prescription drugs. The DEA concluded the stores were an "imminent danger to the public health."
Media reports say the action marked the first time a national drug store chain has had a store's license yanked. I say it's about time. If it can be proven that a pharmacist or another store employee sold narcotics under the table and pocketed the money, they should go to jail like any other drug pusher.
I only hope the DEA is as tough on greedy doctors who overprescribe these painkillers like they were candy and on all those Internet pharmacies offering OxyContin while bragging you can get it "without a prescription." I would think the Web-based purveyors of these painkillers would be fairly easy to find by simply following the trail of credit card transactions, but there must be more to it, since every time I check there are more and more of them. Whatever the feds are doing to curtail them, it isn't working.
While the inside-the-store jobs are disturbing enough, even more important to the public's immediate safety is the rising number of drug store armed robberies — up an astounding 82 percent over the last five years. Some of these goons strike in broad daylight, like the armed addict who arrived at the Haven Drugs store in Medford, N.Y., last June. While his addicted wife waited in the car, 33-year-old David Laffer stuffed his backpack with thousands of painkillers. Before he left, he shot and killed five innocent people in the process.
In Houston, almost 20 pharmacy thefts have occurred since January. In one case, the action was caught on video and showed the robber was in and out of the store in just two minutes, apparently knowing exactly where the OxyContin and hydrocodone was kept.
"What it's telling me is they have some information on how these pharmacies are set up," said Lt. Jeff Stauber of the Houston Police Department. "It was almost like he was shopping to fill a shopping list."
In Minneapolis, police picked up a 24-year-old man for a pharmacy robbery, and he not only admitted his crime but copped to two other drugstore painkiller heists earlier this year. In Indianapolis, a pharmacist with a gun pointed at his back was led past customers by a thug intent on cleaning out the narcotics cabinet. In Guilford, Maine, a young man armed with a hunting knife jumped the counter, threatened the pharmacist and fled with a large amount of narcotics.
From California and Nevada, through Colorado and New Mexico, and on into Oklahoma and Kansas, a shockingly high 300 percent increase in addictive drug sales have been charted over the last decade. That translates to more potential abuse, armed robberies, overdose deaths and heartache.
How much worse does it have to get before we figure out how to stop this awful trend?
Examiner Columnist Diane Dimond is syndicated by Creators.