BINGHAM, Me. — The orange signs posted throughout Chet Hibbard’s pharmacy here relay a blunt warning: We Do Not Stock OxyContin.
Matt McInnis for The New York Times
“Outside hiring an armed guard to be in here 24/7, I don’t know what else to do.” CHET HIBBARD, a Maine pharmacist who has stopped selling OxyContin.
Mr. Hibbard stopped dispensing the highly addictive painkiller last July, after two robbers in ski goggles demanded it at knifepoint one afternoon as shocked customers looked on. It was one in a rash of armed robberies at Maine drugstores last year, a sharp increase that has rattled pharmacists and put the police on high alert.
“I want people to know before they even get in the door that we don’t have it,” Mr. Hibbard said of OxyContin, which the authorities say is the most common target of pharmacy robberies here. “Outside hiring an armed guard to be in here 24/7, I don’t know what else to do.”
Maine’s problem is especially stark, but it is hardly the only state dealing with pharmacy robberies, one of the more jarring effects of the prescription drug abuse epidemic that has left drugstores borrowing heist-prevention tactics from the more traditional targets, banks. In at least one case, a tiny tracking device affixed to a bottle let the police easily track a thief after a robbery.
More than 1,800 pharmacy robberies have taken place nationally over the last three years, typically conducted by young men seeking opioid painkillers and other drugs to sell or feed their own addictions. The most common targets are oxycodone (the main ingredient in OxyContin), hydrocodone (the main ingredient in Vicodin) and Xanax.
The robbers are brazen and desperate. In Rockland, Me., one wielded a machete as he leapt over a pharmacy counter to snatch the painkiller oxycodone, gulping some before he fled. In Satellite Beach, Fla., a robber threatened a pharmacist with a cordless drill last week, and in North Highlands, Calif., a holdup last summer led to a shootout that left a pharmacy worker dead.
The crime wave has spurred pharmacists to tighten security measures and add ones they may never have imagined. Many have upgraded their surveillance cameras; some have installed bulletproof glass and counters high enough to keep would-be robbers from jumping them, giving these pharmacies the aesthetic of an urban liquor store. In Tulsa, Okla., where there was a steep increase in drugstore robberies last year, at least one pharmacist now requires customers to be buzzed in the door.
Meanwhile, the police are quietly experimenting with new tools. In Lewiston, Me., last fall, a Rite Aid pharmacist handed a robber who threatened to shoot her five bottles of OxyContin, including one that contained a tracking device.
According to court records, the device led the police to the suspect’s home on a rural road shortly after he fled the store. They gathered evidence there, arrested the suspect a few days later and indicted him last month.
The Drug Enforcement Administration does not routinely investigate reports of pharmacy robberies, and therefore “it cannot be determined what factors are contributing to these types of thefts,” a spokeswoman said.
But some local law enforcement officials have been overwhelmed enough by the incidents to seek help. Thomas Delahanty II, the United States attorney in Maine, announced recently that the federal authorities would help investigate the heists from now on and prosecute some of the cases.
Federal charges could bring more prison time, Mr. Delahanty said, describing the surge in such robberies as “staggering numbers that can’t be ignored.” There were 21 in Maine last year, according to the D.E.A., up from two in 2008 and seven in 2009.
In Biddeford, Me., a city of 21,000 that has had seven pharmacy robberies since December 2009, Roger Beaupre, the police chief, said he was urging the stores to require customers to remove hoods and sunglasses before entering and to consider caging in their pharmacy counters.
Police officers there got free training in how to investigate pharmacy heists last month from Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. The company also trains pharmacists on how to prevent robberies and what to do should they fall victim to one, said Rick Zenuch, its director of law enforcement liaison and education.
“The very first tip we give them is comply, comply, comply,” Mr. Zenuch said. “Do exactly what the suspect wants, to end the encounter as soon as possible.”
In Washington State, where more than 100 pharmacy robberies have taken place over the last three years, law enforcement officials say the penalty for second-degree robbery, when the pharmacist may be threatened but no weapon is shown, is too weak. Dan Satterberg, the King County prosecutor, said he had submitted a bill to the Legislature to increase the minimum jail time to three years from three months.
“Word travels fast on the street about what an easy target the pharmacies are and how much profit can be made and what small punishment is attached,” Mr. Satterberg said.
OxyContin goes for $1 a milligram on the street, Mr. Satterberg and other law enforcement officials said, and the most popular pill is 80 milligrams.
Many pharmacies in Washington have deterred would-be robbers by putting time-release locks on the safes where they store narcotics and staggering their inventory, Mr. Satterberg said. Perhaps as a result, the number of armed robberies at pharmacies there dropped to 23 in 2010 from 49 in 2008, according to the D.E.A.
Still, Mr. Satterberg said, the threat of robbery has made it difficult for retail chains in the state to recruit enough pharmacists in recent years.
“They feel very vulnerable when so many people are so desperate to get what they keep behind those counters,” he said.
In sheer numbers, Florida, Indiana, California, Ohio and Washington have had the most armed robberies of pharmacies since January 2008, according to the D.E.A. But Maine, Oklahoma and Oregon had the sharpest increases last year.
All but a handful of the Maine robberies took place at Rite Aid and CVS stores, some of which were hit multiple times.
In Tulsa, Okla., where pharmacy robberies last year far outpaced bank robberies, the police said the crimes were now more often committed by gangs who want to sell the drugs than addicts in search of a fix. Robbers there often demand Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, along with opioids, said Sgt. Dave Walker, who runs the robbery unit of the Tulsa Police Department.
In Bingham, a remote town of about 1,000, the men who robbed Mr. Hibbard’s pharmacy, E.W. Moore & Son, were caught and sent to prison, as was another robber who held up the store at gunpoint in 2006. But despite that comforting fact and the store’s nine surveillance cameras and high-tech alarm system, Mr. Hibbard and his employees still jump when the place is quiet and they hear footsteps coming up the ramp, they said.
“I stood right between him and his knife,” said Lori Pratt, a pharmacy technician, referring to one of the robbers. “I was all ready to go on the Internet after it happened and get a Taser gun.”
Unlike Mr. Hibbard, Rite Aid has chosen to keep stocking the drugs that are popular with robbers, said Eric Harkreader, a spokesman. But the company now limits the amount of certain drugs in stores at any given time.
“If they are going for lots of quantity at once, we don’t want to help them out,” he said. “But we certainly want to have the prescription available for all its legitimate purposes.”
In Biddeford, a Rite Aid that was robbed twice last year was struck again last week. The suspect, who demanded OxyContin and fled into the night, remains at large.