NEW YORK (AP) — A wave of pharmacy robberies is sweeping the United States as desperate addicts and ruthless dealers turn to violence to feed the nation’s growing hunger for narcotic painkillers.
From Redmond, Wash., to St. Augustine, Fla., criminals are holding pharmacists at gunpoint and escaping with thousands of powerfully addictive pills that can sell for as much as $80 apiece on the street.
In one of the most shocking crimes yet, a robber walked into a neighborhood drugstore last Sunday on New York’s Long Island and gunned down the pharmacist, a teenage store clerk and two customers before leaving with a backpack full of pills containing hydrocodone.
“It’s an epidemic," said Michael Fox, a pharmacist on New York’s Staten Island who has been stuck up twice in the last year. “These people are depraved. They’ll kill you.”
Armed robberies at pharmacies rose 81 percent between 2006 and 2010, from 380 to 686, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says. The number of pills stolen went from 706,000 to 1.3 million.
Thieves are overwhelmingly taking oxycodone painkillers like OxyContin or Roxicodone, or hydrocodone-based painkillers like Vicodin and Norco. Both narcotics are highly addictive.
In New York state, the number of armed pharmacy robberies rose from 2 in 2006 to 28 in 2010. In Florida, they increased nearly six-fold, from 11 to 65. California saw 61 robberies in 2010, Indiana had 45 and Tennessee had 38.
In September, a clerk was fatally shot in the chest and a pregnant woman wounded in the foot when a shootout broke out between a robber and an armed employee at a pharmacy in a suburb of Sacramento, Calif. In April, a gunman killed a pharmacist in Trenton, N.J., before stealing $10,000 in pills.
The robberies mirror a national rise in the abuse of narcotic painkillers, DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said.
Prescription painkillers are now the second most-abused drugs after marijuana, with 7 million Americans using them illegally in the past month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says. The number of patients treated in emergency rooms for prescription drug overdoses more than doubled between 2004 and 2008, from 144,644 to 305,885.