Robbers target painkiller

The red and white sign affixed to the glass at a downtown pharmacy is a small reminder of a disturbing trend in drugstore robbery.

The red and white sign affixed to the glass at a downtown pharmacy is a small reminder of a disturbing trend in drugstore robbery.

Posted between displays pitching blood glucose testers and flu shots, it reads: “Minimum OxyContin in stock. All OxyContin prescriptions will require 24-hours notice to completely fill. . . .”

A brand of powerful, addictive painkiller, OxyContin can fetch upwards of $80 a pill on the street. Snorting or injecting the crushed pills produces a cheap, potent high, hence the drug’s nickname in the United States, “hillbilly heroin.”

When taken in large doses or mixed with other prescription drugs or alcohol, it’s potentially lethal. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2009 suggested deaths linked to oxycodone, the main ingredient in OxyContin, jumped fivefold after Ontario added the painkiller to its public drug plan.

The sign is just one of the security measures pharmacies are using to deter would-be crooks from helping themselves to a their OxyContin supplies. It has been happening with alarming frequency since Health Canada approved the drug in 1996.

Last week, Edmonton police warned that there had been 13 drugstore robberies in the first three months of 2011. That is almost double the number of robberies at this time last year. Drugs, not cash, were the target in 11 of them.

Some drugstores have been robbed more than once by the same people. They range from addicts looking for a quick fix to enterprising crooks hoping to profit from it on the street.

Small town crooks have been enticed by OxyContin’s value, too.

In February, two heavily armed robbers entered the Rexall pharmacy in downtown Olds, marched to the back of the store with an employee and demanded the narcotics stored in the safe. They made off with a large amount of OxyContin, as well as amphetamines, morphine and codeine. Two men have been charged in connection with the case.

Fortunately, no one was injured during the Olds robbery.

But the epidemic of OxyContin robberies across the country has left pharmacists traumatized and fearful and provinces struggling to find solutions.

British Columbia created the Pharmacy Robbery Task Force last year to inoculate itself against the OxyContin epidemic.

A project struck by the B.C. Pharmacy Association, the College of Pharmacists of B.C. and the RCMP, the task force raised awareness about pharmacy robbery and developed guidelines so pharmacies would know what to do before, during and after a robbery.

Newfoundland and Labrador launched a similar task force in December 2003.

Pharmacists hoping the B.C. task force would come up a magic bullet to solve their OxyContin problem were bound to be disappointed. Released in December 2010, Guidelines for Addressing Pharmacy Robbery in B.C. concluded that robbery was inevitable. The best a pharmacy could hope to do was avoid making itself a bigger target and getting a good description when the addicts come calling.

Edmonton Police say they’re working on robbery prevention programs with pharmacies, and the Alberta Pharmacists Association has warned pharmacists to protect themselves and their businesses.

Extra security can only go so far, however. Joe Clare, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University who visited pharmacies as part of his research for the task force, concluded “there’s no silver bullet out there” to stopping the robberies.

OxyContin abuse is a problem that transcends provincial boundaries. It’s intertwined with the areas education and prevention, prescription availability and tracking, the strength of the drug, access to addiction treatment and counselling, poverty and the justice system. Some people question whether such powerful narcotics should be available to the general public at all.

The federal election campaign presents our leaders with the perfect opportunity to debate the creation of a comprehensive, national strategy to address the issue of prescription drug abuse in general and OxyContin in particular.

Dealing with desperate, gun-toting addicts should not become part of a pharmacist’s job description.

Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.