Pharmacies on Alert for Robberies of Painkiller

July 9, 2001 -- In parts of the country, a powerful painkiller has become so popular for recreational use it has pharmacies and lawmakers on alert.

Pharmacies and law enforcement agencies are on alert for thefts of the narcotic oxycodone hydrochloride, which, sold as OxyContin, is one of the best-selling brand-name drugs in the world, topping even Viagra.

Police in Massachusetts, parts of the Midwest and Delaware have decided to bulk up patrols around pharmacies because of the thefts.

Armed robbers have hit a dozen Boston-area pharmacies in the past few months. So far, just one suspect has been arrested. To combat future attacks, Boston's Shaw's supermarkets announced its pharmacies would no longer carry the drug.

In Delaware county, there have been 23 deaths this year attributed to abuse of the prescription painkiller, according to a spokesman for the Delaware state District Attorney's office.

And, in at least six other Eastern and Midwestern states, the drug has been identified as a major or significantly growing problem, according to the Department of Justice.

Pharmacies Pulling Drug Off Shelf

Pharmacists are worried, too. Paul Hackett tells his employees never to be alone in his Weymouth, Mass., pharmacy.

"It's such a problem now," he says.

The drug is the subject of a conference by Delaware County officials today who are part of a growing coalition of lawmakers and pharmacy owners concerned about the drug. They want to spread the word about increasing robberies and addiction to the drug.

The Drug Enforcement Agency has suggested that Purdue Pharma, L.P., of Stamford, Conn., the company that makes the drug, reformulate the medication so it is not so prone to abuse. But the drugmaker, which made more than $1 billion last year from its sales, says the problem lies with the abusers and not the drug.

"When drug abusers determine the medical care for the rest of us that is a travesty," says Dr. David Haddox, Purdue Pharma's medical director.

On the company Web site, the firm says it has taken several actions to limit the problem of prescription drug abuse, including giving brochures to pharmacists and doctors, developing tamper-resistant prescription pads, meeting with law enforcement officials and funding a study to prevent patients who "shop for doctors" who might prescribe the drug without proven medical need.

The DEA, along with the Food and Drug Administration, only has authority to make recommendations. It cannot force the company to change its policy.

Works on Pain Relief

The opiate acts on the same receptors as heroin and is prescribed for moderate to high pain relief. Percocet, Percodan, and Tylox are other trade name oxycodone products. But OxyContin is the longest lasting oxycodone product on the market, acting for 12 hours.

OxyContin was approved in 1995 by the FDA as a moderate-to-severe painkiller. But abusers tend to crush the pills to snort it and shoot it like heroin. Because oxycodone is water soluble, crushed tablets can be dissolved in water and the solution injected.

The latter two methods lead to the rapid release and absorption of oxycodone. The drug produces a powerful heroin-like high. By chewing or crushing the pills, the slow time-release protection built into the drug is short-circuited.

In Milwaukee, a 34-year-old unemployed man attempted to rob a pharmacy for his wife last week. She is battling cancer and the family can't afford the drug. He walked into a Walgreen's with a hat pulled over his face and handed a note to the pharmacist that read "give me all your Oxycontin and nobody will get hurt."

He ran to the parking lot with a bag full of drugs, worth $400, and doubled back.

"That's not me, and I started thinking about how much trouble you could get into and stuff and I just turned around and gave it back to the fella and said I'm sorry," said Kevin May, who was reportedly arrested but not charged in the incident.