June 23, 2018
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Drug problem has grown since 1991 pharmacy robbery

Renee Ordway
By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN

The first pharmacy robbery I covered was on a slushy, gray day in December 1991.

Pharmacy robberies were virtually unheard of, so interest in the newsroom was piqued at once.

The robber didn’t get far, just a couple of miles from the Downeast Pharmacy in Hampden to the parking lot of the former Burger King restaurant on Main Street in Bangor. He had stopped there to get a soda with which to swallow some of the 100 Percodan tablets he had stolen at knifepoint just about 10 minutes before.

By the time I dashed down the block to Burger King, 73-year-old Emil Garrett already had assumed the position and was under arrest.

Turned out Mr. Garrett was a very smart man — a retired Army colonel and a chemical engineer — but he also was an addict and, as it turned out, not a terribly swift robbery suspect.

It was nine years later when the BDN ran its bold headline: “Heroin. It’s Cheap. It’s Deadly. It’s Here. Dealers find markets in Maine for addictive drug.”

Garrett wasn’t using heroin, but what we all learned nine years after his failed robbery attempt was that heroin and prescription opiates are interchangeable. We also learned that heroin had established a strong foothold here and Maine was in trouble.

Prior to that November 2000 story, most of us had never heard of a drug called methadone.

Today there are nine methadone clinics in the state, four in Bangor, all trying to keep up with the still-growing number of opiate addicts.

Nine years after that story ran, the BDN published another article announcing that for the first time in the state’s history drug overdoses claimed more lives than motor vehicle accidents. Still true today.

In 2005, five years after that first story on heroin, we ran another announcing that 165 opiate-addicted babies were born in Maine that year.

Three years later that figure had jumped to 464.

In 2008 there were two pharmacy robberies. So far this year there have been 24 — but the day isn’t over yet.

Who would have thought being a Maine pharmacist could be such a risky profession?

A drug abuse task force was formed early this year and is expected to put forth recommendations about how to interrupt this climbing red line on the drug abuse graph that is the state of Maine.

A climbing red line that represents everything from joblessness, crime rates, sick babies, family and community turmoil, to death.

I sat beside Mr. Garrett when he was in the courtroom for the first time back in 1991. He looked even older than his 73 years, underweight, a big bunch protruding from his back from a severe back condition and in an orange prison jumpsuit.

He was a career Army colonel, he said. He had fought in three wars.

On that day his wife had left him and he had spent the night before on suicide watch at the Penobscot County Jail, dressed only in his undershorts and on a thin mattress on a cement floor.

He couldn’t figure out how to live without the Percodan, he said.

That was all those years ago, but still Mr. Garrett’s story represents one very sad yet very real aspect of the state’s drug problem.

But just one. Not all elicit the type of sympathy that I admittedly felt for that old man that day in a Bangor courtroom.

It’s a problem that is so large and so multifaceted that in the 12 years since that first story ran in the BDN that warned of an opiate problem emerging in our state, no one agency or group of experts has been able to rein it in.

That red line continues its deadly upward climb.

That’s a lot of pressure on this task force. Let’s wish them the best.

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