Stopping pharmacy robberies E-mail
Written by Doug Long   

It’s a place where king salmon sells in an open market and roasted coffees send the aroma of flavored lattes onto its streets. But Seattle, until recently, was also known as the leader in pharmacy robberies. Drug stores were under siege by a new kind of addict; one that most likely started buying drugs through a prescription.

“In the 80’s, it was all about cocaine and heroin, and the hard drugs,” stated Ron Friedman, a former federal prosecutor today working with Lane Powell Attorneys & Counselors. “Well it came along, certainly in the 2000’s, the fascination with hard drugs in the Pacific Northwest was gone. Prescription drugs had passed hard drugs, and that’s the way it is today.”

Law enforcement now targets the abusers and dealers of these drugs - highly addictive oxycodone painkillers like OxyContin, along with hydrocodone laced products such as Vicodin. Assailants employ guns, knives and bomb threats to rob unsuspecting pharmacy stores that seldom include the type of security needed to prevent such crimes.

Fueled by what area officials refer to as “Microsoft money,” a large influx of upper middle-class  who moved into the Seattle area during the 1980’s, people started buying drugs off the streets in the past decade at an alarming rate. At its peak, one in six pharmacies in the Northwest region was being robbed, often during mid-day, demanding a shopping list of required pain killers.

But for Seattle, the trend would not continue. This due in large part to a concerted effort by local police, a Federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. These players also joined hands with national pharmaceutical chains to address the problem directly.

“We asked pharmacies to step to the plate, to secure the drugs in a better manner and to train the pharmacy techs what to do when they see somebody suspicious loitering in the area,” commented Detective Magan. After a series of successful sting operatives, in the past year, there have been only a handful of robberies to report. Seattle made it priority to not only stop these crimes, but to address the problems that may have caused the outbreak in the first place.

“We decided to give it a higher profile because we wanted to use Federal resources,” said Friedman. “We did knock off some major gangs that were doing this. But we also got a lot of word out there through the press. We created an atmosphere where the word on the street was – if you do this, you’re going to get prosecuted by the feds.”

In addition to prescription drug monitoring programs that cross state lines, there’s been a recent push for tougher laws protecting pharmacies. In 2012, President Obama signed a bill called the Safe Doses Act. It essentially gives law enforcement more tools to work with in fighting back.

In the words of New York Senator Charles Schumer, who co-sponsored the legislation, “it ensures that powerful prescriptions like OxyContin and hydrocodone make it from the factory to the patient, and nowhere else.”
“People became overwhelmingly addicted to prescription drugs,” added Magan.

“I think the old supply and demand falls into place there. People are demanding it, so some people kicked themselves into a business of robbing pharmacies.”

Doug Long is a producer with the Center for Public Safety Innovation.

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