As the nation’s heroin epidemic continues to claim lives at a rapid rate, the search for the heroin high is creating a dangerous situation for pharmacies. Police have responded to more than 500 pharmacy robberies in Illinois and Indiana since 2012, according to statistics compiled by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
In many security camera videos, pharmacists and their staff members can be seen being threatened, pushed or held at gunpoint by robbers who are demanding opioids and anti-anxiety medications. Opioid painkillers are known to ease heroin withdrawal while anti-anxiety pills can be used to mellow a high.
Glenn Kosirog was working at his family-owned pharmacy in Chicago in February when an alleged robber displayed a gun and forced him to hand-over thousands of prescription pills. Most of the incident was captured by Kosirog’s security cameras.
“He had ripped the narcotic cabinet off the wall,” Kosirog said. “He didn’t take everything. He just took the Xanax and hydrocodone.”
Chicago police said no offenders are in custody and the investigation is still ongoing.
Prescriptions for hydrocodone dropped by 350,000 in Illinois, as tighter controls on painkillers are putting fewer pills in the hands of users. The resulting street value of the drugs increases because they are in more demand.
“If you can’t get your painkiller any more, you’re either going to move to heroin or in some cases you’re going to rob a pharmacy to get those drugs that’s harder to get from your medical provider,” said DEA Chicago Special Agent in Charge Dennis Wichern.
According to Mt. Prospect-based National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), violent pharmacy robberies may end up having the harshest effect on the real patients who need prescription painkillers.
“One of the unintended consequences of all of this is they will simply quit carrying these products and when they do, these patients don’t have access to the medication they need,” said NABP executive director Carmen Catizone.
The number of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. skyrocketed to more than 33,000 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The February robbery wasn’t the first targeting Kosirog’s pharmacy.
“You’re always taken by surprise,” Kosirog said. “You try to hope and pray that they leave quickly.”
Police continue to investigate a violent robbery at a Wauwatosa, Wisconsin pharmacy that occurred in December. Security video of the incident, which was reported by NBC 5, showed robbers knocking down pharmacy staff members and threatening them at gunpoint. A spokesperson for the Wauwatosa Police Department said suspects in the case have been identified, but criminal charges have not yet been issued in the case.
Wichern said in some cases children under 17 are given “shopping lists” by an older person to rob pharmacies of prescription pills. He said children are used to conduct the robberies because it makes it more difficult to prosecute the cases.