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More in News
Pharmacies face robbery wave
SIGN OF THE TIMES — A sign at a local Rite Aid informs customers that Oxycontin, a powerful painkiller, is not kept on store property. Maine pharmacies have faced a wave of robberies in the past four years and drug stores are taking precautions to reduce the liklihood they will be targeted.
STATE — It's not police officers, security guards or bank tellers who are on the front lines of a growing type of crime in Maine – it's pharmacists.
Maine has witnessed a surge in pharmacy robberies in recent years. In 2008 there were two recorded robberies – last year there were 24.
The number of robberies is expected to grow again. A June 27 robbery tied last year's record, and 2012 is barely half-over.
In Maine, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris has reportedly estimated that by the end of the year, 14 percent of all the drug stores in the state will have been robbed.
For those working behind the counter at a local pharmacy, that can seem pretty scary.
Linda Lowe, the pharmacy manager at Wal-Mart in Oxford, has worked as a pharmacist for years, in both hospitals and pharmacies.
She says that two pharmacies she has worked at have been broken into after-hours, the last, about five years ago.
Now, she worries that someone will rob the store in broad daylight.
"People have gotten bolder," Lowe says.
According to Lowe, Wal-Mart has heightened security at the Oxford location, precisely because of the increase of robberies state-wide.
Law enforcement officials have blamed the surge in pharmacy robberies on the state's prescription drug abuse epidemic.
For years, Maine has shown high levels of narcotic addiction, partially the result of easy availability of powerful prescription painkillers like Oxycontin.
Law enforcement officials have blamed prescription drug addiction for the steep rise in Maine's crime rate in recent years, which went up 5 percent in 2011 alone.
Lowe doesn't dispute that prescription drug abuse is fueling the rise in pharmacy robberies, but she's not convinced it's the only reason.
"It's a big part of it," she says. "Money is a big part of it, and they get away with it. A lot of these guys get a slap on the wrist, so it's worth the risk."
She says that she sometimes feels unsafe dealing with some customers, especially those who are trying to fill an illegitimate prescription.
In the past, Lowe says, she would argue with customers when they brought in a prescription that had obviously been altered or when they tried to get a prescription filled early.
Now, she says, the rule of thumb is not to confront the client, and do everything they can to avoid an incident.
The fact that Oxford Hills has not had a pharmacy robbery in the last few years doesn't put her at ease.
Kristin Harris, a pharmacist who works in several Rite Aid locations across southern Maine, including the location in South Paris, says that a possible pharmacy robbery is just part of the job.
"I mean, you're always at risk," she says, "you just have to take that risk."
According to the Bangor Daily News, half of all the pharmacy robberies in the state occurred at Rite Aid locations.
Rite Aid robbery
The South Paris Rite Aid was robbed at gun-point in 2005 and the suspect made off with a large number of Oxycontin doses. Police later apprehended the suspect and recovered the majority of the pills.
In 2008, a man was arrested at the same location after demanding painkillers and threatening employees when he was refused.
Harris says she isn't aware of any additional precautions Rite Aid has taken, but the company does its best to keep its employees informed and prepared.
"They keep us well educated on what to do and what steps to follow in order to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect ourselves and our customers," she says.
If a store is threatened, Rite Aid protocol requires pharmacists to give criminals what they demand and make sure they leave the store as quickly as possible.
As a precaution, both Rite Aid and Hannaford do not stock Oxycontin or other frequently abused painkillers – customers must request their prescription at least 24 hours in advance.
"We're always looking for new ways to make sure that the environment in the store is as secure as it possibly can be," says Mike Norris, a spokesperson for Hannaford.
Norris says that before 2001, the company had never had a pharmacy robbery.
According to Norris, the company has locations across the state and about 80 percent of them have pharmacies.
A number of Hannaford locations have been robbed in the past few years, Norris says. Even though the total number of robberies is low, he said it is still concerning.
Norris says Hannaford has three categories of security. Along with not stocking pain killers in stores, there are also employees disguised as customers who monitor the store's security, and the company has installed digital video recording equipment that allows people in the corporate offices to view the stores remotely.
According to Norris, Hannaford has ramped up its security in the last few years to combat the growing trend in pharmacy robberies.
"Those actions have been fairly successful," says Norris.
"I think if we hadn't done all those things our share [of robberies] likely would be larger."
The increase in robberies concerns Oxford Police Chief Jonathan Tibbetts, but he includes the threat in a list of issues his department confronts.
He thinks that Hannaford and Wal-Mart, both located in Oxford, are pretty well-equipped to deal with any situation that might arise.
Paris Police Chief David Verrier says the issue is a concern for his department.
"There's a lot of prescription drug addictions in our community," Verrier says, "and when people are desperate, sometimes they do desperate things."