The violence and tragedy associated with pharmacy robberies have received considerable national attention in recent months. In areas across this country, criminals have targeted pharmacies with the goal of stealing powerfully addictive medications, some of which can sell for as much as $80 per pill on the street. As long as there continues to be a market for illicit use of these medications, there will be significant potential for these types of crimes.
Over the past decade, the Nation has witnessed growing rates of prescription drug abuse and misuse, and dramatic increases in related consequences to public health and safety. The latest data show that approximately seven million Americans currently abuse prescription drugs. In 2010, 2.4 million Americans aged 12 or older used prescription drugs non-medically for the first time, equating to nearly 6,600 new users per day, second only to new users of marijuana.1 These numbers translate into very real consequences. In 2009, over 1.2 million emergency department visits involved the non-medical use of pharmaceuticals, double the estimate from 5 years earlier, and outnumbering visits involving all other illicit drugs combined. Perhaps most alarming is the number of deaths associated with abuse of these drugs. In 2008, more than 36,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, and prescription drugs—particularly opioid painkillers—were involved in a significant proportion of those deaths.2 In fact, opioid pain relievers are now involved in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.
These public health issues are connected with a host of public safety consequences, including pharmacy robberies. Pharmacy robberies have been especially troublesome because of the violence with which some have been committed. In one robbery, the perpetrator walked into a Long Island drugstore and gunned down the pharmacist, a teenage store clerk, and two customers before leaving with a backpack full of pills containing hydrocodone. This shocking incident underscores the urgency with which we must act to prevent these crimes and related violence from occurring.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has been monitoring these developments and takes them very seriously. This past July, ONDCP convened a roundtable on pharmacy robberies. This roundtable included our Federal partners from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, while also including representatives from a number of key stake-holders, such as: National Community Pharmacists Association; National Association of Chain Drug Stores; American Pharmacists Association; National Association of Boards of Pharmacy; the National Sheriffs Association; and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA).
Meeting participants agreed upon a number of important steps to combat pharmacy robberies. ONDCP agreed to work with the COPS Office to compile and disseminate pharmacy robbery information and promising practices via their network of over 13,000 law enforcement agencies. COPS and ONDCP also intend to hold a workshop on pharmacy robberies at the National Methamphetamine & Pharmaceutical Initiative conference. The Washington/Baltimore HIDTA is currently devising a database that would more accurately track the incidence of pharmacy robberies. Our non-Federal partners agreed to develop and disseminate a “best practices” guide. Representatives from each sector were enthusiastic about continuing this conversation, and all agreed to continue to share critical data information to better inform our response to these crimes.
While these pharmacy robberies have received considerable media attention, it is important to keep in mind that they are part of a larger issue: prescription drug abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified prescription drug abuse as an epidemic, underscoring our need for a comprehensive response to this issue. This is why the Obama Administration responded by creating the first national action plan to address prescription drug abuse.3 Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis incorporates four critical elements to comprehensively address America’s prescription drug problem: education, monitoring, law enforcement, and proper disposal. This plan brings together Federal, state, local, and tribal leaders to reduce diversion and abuse of prescription drugs. It strikes a balance between our need to prevent the misuse of pharmaceuticals and its associated crime, with the need to ensure legitimate access to these medications.
The epidemic of prescription drug abuse has impacted too many Americans. Whether it is fueling the apparent surge in violent pharmacy robberies, drugged driving fatalities, or overdose deaths, it is having a devastating effect on our Nation. ONDCP and its partners will continue to focus on this issue to reduce the public health and safety consequences of this epidemic.
Office of National Drug Control Policy
1 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. [September 2011]. Available: http://oas.samhsa.gov/NSDUH/2k10NSDUH/2k10Results.htm
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Vital Signs: Overdoses of Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers—United States, 1999-2008. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. [November 2011]. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6043a4.htm?s_cid=mm6043a4_w