Pill epidemic makes pharmacies targets for thieves

MANATEE -- When a gunman robbed a Winn-Dixie store pharmacy at 7400 Cortez Road of oxycodone pills Monday morning, the crime was one more addition to a disturbing national statistic and trend.

Since 2003, there have been 6,184 crimes against 23,000 independent pharmacies in theUnited States, said Valerie Briggs, a spokeswoman with the National Community Pharmacists Association based in Alexandria, Va.

Briggs’ source for the statistics, which doesn’t include corporate pharmacies like Wal-Mart or unreported crimes, come from a database called RxPatrol that tracks such crimes.

RxPatrol is funded by Purdue Pharma L.P., the Stamford, Conn., maker of OxyContin, a painkiller so sought after by those addicted to it that they often commit brazen crimes to get it.

“They are going to the pharmacy for one thing, for prescription meds,” said Dave Bristow of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. “I believe most of these suspects are brazen. The crimes are often done in the middle of the day. This is a big problem all over the country now. People are hooked on these drugs.”

The Winn-Dixie robber approached the store pharmacy about 9:09 a.m. with a note demanding the painkillers, according to a Sheriff’s Office news release.

“When the clerk questioned if he was serious, the suspect displayed a handgun in his waistband,” the release states.

The robber, who was described as wearing a long-sleeved blue and white shirt, a University of Miami hat and sunglasses, fled the store after getting some of the drug, the report added.

Although exact statistics weren’t available Monday, Bristow said Manatee County has been spared a large outbreak of pharmacy crimes over the last few years. “I think that was our first one this year,” Bristow said, referring to the Winn-Dixie robbery.

But the rest of the nation has not been so fortunate.

“I don’t have the exact numbers, but there have been reports that crimes against retailers are increasing,” Briggs said Monday. “What makes pharmacies unique is that the suspects are not just interested in our money, but our products as well.”

Robert Pelot, the long-time pharmacist at Pelot’s Manatee Pharmacy in the 800 block of ManateeAvenue East, held a recent meeting with his staff. “I told the girls to be aware of their surroundings,” Pelot said Monday. “It bothers me. I do worry about it.”

Pelot’s, which is a member of the National Community Pharmacists Association, was robbed on Nov. 2, 1981. “I remember the date,” Pelot said. “It was a drug called Dilaudid they were after.” Since then, he has installed security cameras and alarms. He hopes that is as far as he has to go.

But nationally, pharmacies are going farther. “I think some of the tips we have gotten from our partnership with RxPatrol is to use closed-circuit TV, alarms and to train your staff on how to be good witnesses,” Briggs said.

A “height sticker” is applied to some pharmacy doors so staff can get a quick look at the height of a suspect.

“We tell our pharmacists to train their staff to note everything, but comply with whatever is asked,” Briggs said. “The drugs our pharmacies have are valuable, but they can be replaced.”

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