BANGOR, Maine — While the number of pharmacy robberies in Maine is already nearly double the figure for all of last year — it hit 45 as of Monday — law enforcement officials say most of the robbers are being caught.
Good police work has led to the capture of four out of every five criminals who have tried this year to rob drugs from pharmacies, according to Maine Public Safety Commissioner John E. Morris.
“Of the 45 robberies, 37 have been arrested,” he said Tuesday. That is a clearance rate of about 82 percent.
Drugstore robberies in Maine jumped from just two in 2008 to eight in 2009, 21 in 2010 and 24 last year, prompting the creation of a 17-member Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force last February by Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine attorney general’s office. Many Mainers are addicted to diverted prescription pills and rob pharmacies to get drugs to use and sometimes sell, said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.
When their supply dries up, addicts commit robberies to feed their addiction, the MDEA leader said Tuesday. “They’re getting it for themselves, but they also are selling them amongst each other.”
MDEA investigators find that the painkiller oxycodone is the most sought-after prescription drug at the street level, he said.
Twenty-three of the 45 pharmacy robberies in Maine this year — a little more than half — have been at Rite Aid stores hit by drug addicts desperate for prescription pain pills, McKinney said.
The most recent drugstore robbery in Maine occurred Monday night at the Rite Aid on the corner of Union and Fourteenth streets in Bangor, which has been robbed twice in the last 10 days and four times in the past six months.
“We are working with law enforcement to find out exactly what is happening in the area,” Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower said Tuesday, referring to the high number of robberies at that one store.
“We are implementing extra [security] measures at the store,” she added, declining to provide specifics.
“Once you publish them, they aren’t really effective,” Flower said earlier when asked whether a security guard would be added to the store at Union and Fourteenth. A GPS tracking device was used to find the most recent robbers of that store, according to court documents and a prosecutor.
Other national pharmacy chains — CVS with six, Walgreens with three, and Walmart with two — also have been robbed this year in Maine, and six Community Pharmacy locations — three in Gorham, two in Saco and one in Corinth — have been hit.
Single robberies at Goggins IGA in Randolph, Shaw’s in Ellsworth, Jenson’s Pharmacy in Rockland, Unity Pharmacy in Unity and the Hannaford grocery store in Bangor also have been reported this year.
The prevalence of Rite Aid, which has 79 stores in Maine, may have something to do with its being targeted so often.
“We obviously are taking these very seriously and we’re working with the authorities,” Flower said, echoing a statement she made 10 days ago after three pharmacies in Bangor and Brewer — including two Rite Aids — were robbed within just over an hour’s time on Sept. 30. “We’re committed to providing a safe environment for our associates and our customers.”
The Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force says it has been working to:
• Improve the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, a database for doctors and pharmacists that could be used by law enforcement.
• Implement a diversion alert program to track people who doctor-shop in order to get multiple prescriptions.
• Develop a long-term controlled substance disposal solution.
• Educate the public about the dangers of prescription drug addiction and its effect on families and communities.
“Prescription drug abuse is a crisis in Maine,” states an interim report from the task force published in July. “Deaths attributed to prescription drugs are also on the rise. The societal problems created by this issue are far too numerous to list here, but they impact every level of society and touch on the lives of everyone.”
Two of the task force’s goals — educating the public and disposal — go hand in hand, said McKinney, who is part of the prescription drug monitoring subcommittee.
Surveys show that about 70 percent of those who become addicts get their first taste of diverted drugs “out of the family’s drug cabinet,” he said.
Educating people about locking up prescription drugs and how to properly dispose of them is key, McKinney said.
“If they are no longer needed, destroy them,” he said.
The effort has started to work, but more can be done, Michael Wardrop, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s resident agent in charge in Maine, said recently. Maine has ranked first in the nation for the amount of drugs collected per capita in the last four National Prescription Drug Take-Backs sponsored by the DEA, and at the end of September turned over another 13,900 pounds, he said.
“It’s almost seven tons taken out of the house,” Wardrop said.
Wardrop, who earlier this year worried about whether the DEA would continue to fund the prescription drug take-backs, sits on the Maine Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force. He said he is working to classify the collected pills and other drugs as residential household solid waste instead of the current designation of hazardous waste, a change that would cut future disposal costs significantly.
The diversion alert program, once implemented, would provide “prescribers with drug crime information from local law enforcement to assist in determining whether patients are legitimately in need of controlled substance prescriptions,” the interim report states.
Maine is one of 41 states that has a prescription drug monitoring program. The task force wants to increase “real time reporting” as well as the scope of the program, according to McKinney.
“It’s a resource for doctors to check and determine whether or not a patient who has presented themselves is going to other doctors, in order to cut down on doctor shopping,” he said.
Some doctors input the data daily and others do it weekly, McKinney said.
“Someone can go through quite a few doctors in a week,” he said. After a week, “it’s old information, frankly.”
Part of the problem is funding to update the data, McKinney said.
“The other part is for law enforcement to have more streamlined access to that program when it’s needed for bona fide criminal investigation,” McKinney said. “Rather than court orders and subpoenas, have a streamlined administrative program, which many states have.”
All pharmacies are required to have video surveillance cameras to help catch criminals, and that is a tremendous resource, McKinney said. No one, so far, has been seriously injured in a pharmacy robbery in Maine, even though robbers have threatened pharmacy clerks with guns, knives, machetes and even bombs.
It is clear that those who hold up drugstores in Maine are desperate because they typically do not like to face and confront their victims, McKinney said. Still, they continue committing the crime even though most are caught and arrested, he added.
“They are thinking short term — but that’s the addiction,” McKinney said.