Across the region, pharmacies are increasingly becoming thieves' targets. And it's not for cash.
"They know what they're looking for, and it's variations of the strong opiate painkillers," said Nassau Police Narcotics/Vice Det. Lt. Pete Donohue.
On Sunday, a man looking for such drugs shot and killed four people in a Medford pharmacy.
The Drug Enforcement Administration's New York field division -- covering Long Island and the city -- investigated 125 percent more pharmacy break-ins from October 2009 to September 2010 compared with the prior year.
These numbers add up to real fear among independent pharmacies. Michael Hushin, who runs Lakeland Pharmacy in Ronkonkoma, keeps controlled substances locked up, and now has a pistol permit.
"Even hardened criminals, like bank robbers, are thinking about robbing pharmacies," he said. "So you try to protect yourself the best you can."
Addicts typically go to small mom-and-pop pharmacies to avoid crowds and better security systems, Donohue said. They often skip the register.
An 80mg oxycodone tablet can sell for $80, or $8,000 for a bottle of 100, Hushin said.
"This can happen to anybody, any store," Joanne Hoffman Beechko, owner of Rx Express in East Northport and president of the Long Island Pharmacists Society, said of the Medford crime. "I don't think you'll find one that hasn't had some kind of bad experience from controlled substances."
Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Conn., producer of OxyContin, runs rxpatrol.com, tracking pharmacy crimes, analyzing trends and providing security tips. Year to date, it has recorded 1,972 reports of pharmacy robberies nationwide.
Prescription pills arrests, at least in Nassau, now outnumber those for heroin by 2-to-1.
"This is someone who is no longer able to pass forged prescriptions or 'doctor-shop,' " Rick Zenuch, Purdue's law enforcement liaison and education director, said of a pharmacy robbery suspect. "They're doing this out of desperation."
Drugstore after corner drugstore has a horror story. Tomkins Pharmacy in Hauppauge posted a "No OxyContin" sign after a robbery. At Belmont Drugs in West Babylon, armed robbers have struck twice in recent years.
"There needs to be a change in the way these medications are prescribed," said Belmont's Howard Levine, the pharmacist society's executive director. "They need to have restricted use."
As an example of the issue's urgency, Levine noted that the Medford killings at Haven Drugs came just four days after the DEA offered Long Island pharmacists a seminar in Plainview on how to avoid pharmacy robberies.
Moby Drugs in Farmingdale fields calls nearly every Friday night from someone asking if the store stocks oxycodone or similar painkillers. That raises alarms, they say, because regular customers with legitimate prescriptions already know the pharmacy has the drugs.
"This was already a serious problem," said Vinny Conte, one of Moby's pharmacists. "This just escalates the whole thing."
With Carol Polsky,
and Patrick Whittle
Opioids of choice
Opioid painkillers include oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine, among others. They work as an analgesic by changing the way the brain and nervous system respond to pain.
OxyContin, a popular brand-name painkiller that contains oxycodone, became a popular target for drug abuse. However, a reformulation last year of some dosages of OxyContin, turned the pill into a gummy mass when crushed, making it far more difficult for users to get their customary high by snorting, injecting or chewing the crushed pill. -- CAROL POLSKY