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A single OxyContin pill that retails for $6 can cost between $50 and $80 on the street.
Source: CNN Money
A shotgun hangs for all to see behind the counter at Longley's Pharmacy in Rossville.
"I have it here as a subliminal reminder that I do have a weapon," pharmacist Jerry Grimmitt said.
Hold-ups didn't concern Grimmitt when he began his pharmacy career in 1966. But that changed about 10 years ago when retail sales of the painkillers oxycodone and especially OxyContin got into high gear -- and people caught on to the prescription pills' potential for abuse.
Now drugstores around the country face an onslaught of robberies from addicts craving a fix and drug dealers who can make huge profits selling stolen pills.
"The Drug Enforcement [Administration] has reported in previous media reports that armed robberies at pharmacies have increased 81 percent between 2006 and 2010, from 380 to 686," said Tara O'Connor Shelley, an associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University's Center for the Study of Crime and Justice.
There were more than 2,800 drugstore robberies nationwide between 2006 and 2011, an 80 percent increase, CBS News reported in 2011 after four people were shot dead when a Long Island, N.Y., pharmacy was held up for painkillers.
Figures from and city and county police were not readily available last week.
However, Shelley said, "Tennessee is a hot spot for this activity. They rank in the top 10."
In May a man killed a pharmacist and pharmacy technician and wounded two customers at the Down Home Pharmacy in Bean City, in northeast Tennessee. The robber took oxycodone but no money.
The upsurge in robberies as well as violence has some area pharmacists preparing to defend themselves.
On July 19, pharmacist Tom Rawls used a metal pipe to subdue a gunman who demanded pills and told Rawls to drive him away from the CVS Pharmacy on Hixson Pike in North Chattanooga.
On July 30, an employee at the Walgreens on Highway 153 at Gadd Road in Hixson tackled and subdued a man who jumped the counter and stole a bottle of OxyContin after pharmacist Paul Firth refused to hand it over.
Rawls declined to comment for this report, and referred the call to a corporate public relations.
"We have security policies and procedures in place at all of our stores and we regularly review them to ensure effectiveness," CVS spokesman Michael DeAngelis said in an email. "However, we do not comment on specific security measures so as not to undermine them."
Some media reports have said that chain pharmacies are easy targets, since corporations are loath to install bulletproof glass at counters or allow employees to be armed. The Minneapolis City Pages reported in 2010 that two-thirds of the past five years' robberies were at Walgreens but corporate officials didn't want to install bulletproof glass because they wanted pharmacies to appear "open and inviting."
Walgreens fired a pharmacist at a Michigan store in 2011 for violating its "nonescalation policy." The pharmacist fired his legally permitted handgun to scare off two would-be armed robbers, one of whom took a store manager hostage while another vaulted the counter, according to a report on ABC News' "Good Morning America."
A Walgreens spokeswoman didn't respond to a request for comment.
Grimmitt, an independent pharmacist who owns Longley's Pharmacy with his wife, Judy, said they have never been robbed.
"Most independent pharmacies have some kind of protection, whereas the chain stores can't," Grimmitt said.
As part of her research, Shelley interviewed pharmacy robbers in prison in Ohio and Florida to understand why they did it and what pharmacies can do to protect themselves.
"Some of them say they don't target mom-and-pop pharmacies because they are concerned they're armed. A gun is definitely a deterrent for some but not all offenders," Shelley said.
But she's alarmed when she reads news stories portraying pharmacists as heroes for fighting off robbers.
"It really frightens me knowing what some of these offenders are capable of," Shelley said. "Are you going to have a shoot-out? You get the wrong guy, and they're going to shoot back."
The inmates that Shelley interviewed cited other deterrents, such as bulletproof glass.
"Offenders view bulletproof glass as a really good idea for enhancing pharmacy safety," she said.
Pharmacist Deems Riddle installed bulletproof glass after being held up in 2008 for oxycodone and morphine at his Rapid Rx Drug Store at 4335 Ringgold Road in East Ridge.
"They didn't even ask for money," said Riddle. "I've been in this business 40 years. That's the only time I've ever been robbed at gunpoint."
"I can't completely cut myself off from the patient," he said of the bulletproof glass that goes halfway up the counter.
Bulletproof glass was the first thing pharmacist Kumar Patel installed eight months ago when he opened his Stop 'n' Go Discount Pharmacy in East Ridge at Ringgold Road near Belvoir Avenue.
"Safety is the first thing here," said Patel, who works 12-hour days every day except Sunday. "Friends and family members in the same business, they told me, 'Go for safety.'"
The bulletproof glass may be off-putting to some customers, he said.
"Maybe I'm losing some business, but I don't care," Patel said.
One solution to the increase in pharmacy hold-ups would be to do away with oxycodone entirely, he said.
"That drug does not need to be in the pharmacy," Patel said.
There are other drugs, he said, that could take its place. If oxycodone is necessary for cancer patients, it can be dispensed at hospitals, he said.
Riddle thinks the painkillers, which are derived from opium poppies, are too popular for that.
"You've got to shift a whole culture and you've got tens of millions of people who think they should not live with pain," he said. "I've got pain. I don't take a pill for it. I just live with it."
In her interviews with inmates, Shelley found that 78 percent of pharmacy robbers had been taking prescription painkillers at the time of the crime, and 72 percent had been customers at the pharmacies they targeted. Many of them resort to robbery as a last resort, she said, after being unable to get their fix on the black market or through some other means, such as filling out a fake prescription.
Jesse Vivian, a professor of pharmacy at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., who's written about pharmacy robberies, doesn't think there's an easy solution. Law enforcement could be increased and pharmacies can step up security, he said.
"I'm not sure that the problem is ever going to be totally eliminated," Vivian said. "You can't just say 'We're not going to stock it.' Then what do you do for legitimate patients that do need it?"
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...
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