As Oxycontin abuse spreads, pharmacy robberies rising

Epidemic hits some states notably harder

BIDDEFORD, Maine | Police Chief Roger P. Beaupre has seen his share of criminal trends in 30 years on the job, but he was taken aback recently when residents of this quiet coastal city were urged to turn in their unused prescription medications.

“We dealt with this one little old lady,” Chief Beaupre said, “who turned in two fairly large bottles with 200 tablets of Oxycontin in each one.

“What doctor in his right mind would have prescribed that? It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Oxycontin has long made headlines as the powerful pain pill abused by addicts who crush and snort it for spiking high. Teens are known to get hooked sampling pills from the medicine cabinets of unsuspecting parents or grandparents.

While social programs and law enforcement have battled the problem in recent years, Oxycontin remains at the forefront of an epidemic gripping some states more tightly than others.

**FILE** A handful of 80-milligram Oxycontin pills and two syringes are seen here on a table in Fairfax, Va., on Aug. 15, 2003. (Rod A. Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times)

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**FILE** A handful of 80-milligram Oxycontin pills and two syringes are seen ... more >

Authorities in Maine are scrambling to explain both a surge in the number of pills being prescribed legally, along with an uptick in criminal activity tied to the drug’s abuse.

There were 21 robberies at pharmacies in Maine last year, up from two in 2008 and seven in 2009. Eight occurred here in Biddeford, a town of 21,000 where a Rite Aid was targeted repeatedly by hooded men threatening to pull a gun if clerks didn’t hand over the “Oxy” as it is known on the street.

Other states are also experiencing rising abuse rates. Oregon had 22 pharmacy robberies last year, up from eight in 2009. And in Oklahoma, the number jumped from 12 in 2008 to 33 last year, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

While Oxycontin, which fetches as much a $100 per pill on the black market, may be what thieves are after, authorities say the robberies indicate a wider crisis.

“The overall problem of prescription drug abuse has been growing nationally for a while,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said.

In decades past, he said, “If a kid was going to try something for the first time, chances are it was marijuana. That’s been replaced by prescription drugs.”

It is a problem that Oxycontin’s manufacturer is well aware of. In 2007, Purdue Pharma L.P. agreed to pay more than $600 million in penalties after pleading guilty to misleading the public about the drug’s addiction risks. The company has since spent additional millions on education and drug-monitoring programs.

“It’s a serious problem, and we’re trying to be a part of the solution,” company spokesman James Heins said.

Criminal activity remains an ominous harbinger of the problem in rural states such as Maine, home to roughly 1.3 million people.

“Thirty pharmacy robberies, that’s a big deal for us,” said Maine U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty, who last month announced that federal authorities would begin assisting local police in investigating the robberies.

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