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.
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 That's been replaced by prescription drugs."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.
Of equal concern is an expansion in the amount of Oxycontin being prescribed legally in Maine. More than 4 million pills were prescribed in 2010, nearly five times the number in 2006, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.
"The pill counts show that the neighborhood drug dealer is peoples' medicine cabinet," said Guy Cousins, who heads the agency. "We ask kids in surveys where do they get it, and 'friends and family' is the No. 1 answer."
Maine has a Web-based prescription-monitoring program, which allows doctors to check the prescription history of patients if concerns arise that a medication is being over-prescribed.
According to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, 34 states have similar programs, which can help identify people trying to get prescriptions filled repeatedly by different doctors — a tactic police say is often used by addicts and dealers.
But only one state — Nevada — has a law requiring doctors to check the program's database. Doctors there are required to do so if they have reasonable belief that the patient may be seeking the prescription for nefarious reasons.
There is no such requirement in states such as Maine, where only 35 percent of prescribing doctors have registered to use the program, Mr. Cousins said.
It's a situation that doesn't sit with well with local police, who say a key to the problem is crafty addicts and dealers who prey on errant doctors willing to over-prescribe the drug.
"We've had one individual who had a prescription of Oxycontin filled by three different doctors," Chief Beaupre said. "I don't want to say it's like candy, but that's about how this is being treated."
But Mr. Cousins and Chief Beaupre cautioned against blaming the problem on a single cause.
"There's a whole lot to this story; it's like spaghetti sauce," the chief said. "As far as most people are concerned, it's just marinara sauce, but we're looking at all the ingredients that go into it, the onions and the garlic."
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