SAN FRANCISCO -- Christopher Patterson, co-owner of High Street Pharmacy in Oakland, Calif., didn't panic when two young thieves in masks walked in last month and pointed a gun at him. He and his staff simply gave them what they wanted: the store's entire supply of a prescription narcotic cough syrup that that sells for up to $200 a bottle on the street.
"It just happened so fast. They were in and out in about three minutes," said Patterson, who has since upgraded the pharmacy's surveillance cameras, provided additional safety training for employees and taken other security measures.
Pharmacies, from large chain stores to corner drugstores, have increasingly become victims of holdups and burglaries, fueled largely by the abuse of prescription medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone -- the main ingredient in Vicodin -- and alprazolam, or Xanax.
"You've got people breaking in. We have pharmacies with employees who are stealing drugs," said Virginia Herold, the California Board of Pharmacy's executive officer. "... People want prescription drugs and they see pharmacies as where to get them."
Prescription drug abuse has been a growing problem in the United States for years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription painkillers have surpassed illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine as the leading cause of fatal overdoses.
As abuse rates have risen, so has the frequency of armed robberies at pharmacies.
Over the past four years, pharmacy holdups reported to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency have gone up 80 percent: from 380 at pharmacies nationwide in 2006 to 686 last year. Last year, Florida led with 65 robberies; California followed with 61.
"These are very typically addicts who possibly can no longer get controlled substances in the manner they used to get them," said Rick Zenuch, director of law enforcement liaison for Purdue Pharma, which makes the narcotic painkiller Oxycontin. "This really is a crime of desperation and that makes for a much more dangerous suspect."
Homicides at pharmacies are rare, but on June 22 authorities arrested a Long Island couple in connection with the Father's Day slayings of four people at a pharmacy in Medford, N.Y. The couple were reportedly high on prescription drugs when they were taken into custody.
Most robberies are more mundane, from quick "smash and grab" thefts to sophisticated after-hours burglaries. Even a relatively small shop might have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs.
Federal law requires the loss by a pharmacy, clinic or hospital of any controlled substance, defined as a drug with a potential for abuse, to be reported to law enforcement. Last year, reports submitted to the California Board of Pharmacy increased 44 percent to 752 from 522 just two years earlier.
RxPatrol, based in Stamford, Conn., and developed by Purdue Pharma, is the country's only database for pharmacy crime. Reports are voluntary. In about 80 percent of the robberies in the database, the suspect is a white male, officials said.
Stamford Police Capt. Richard Conklin, who manages the database, said pharmacists need to install security devices, have a robbery plan and learn to be a good witness but, most importantly, comply with thieves' demands.
"They want to be the neighbor pharmacy where you come in and shake your hand and talk about each other's children and dogs, but it's starting to evolve past that," Conklin said.
After experiencing six attempted break-ins last year, High Street Pharmacy's Patterson installed a $15,000 gate. When the two masked robbers came into his store last month, he handed over what they asked for: a specific brand of cough syrup with codeine.
"These were kids who made a stupid decision," said Patterson, who immediately dialed 911 when the masked pair entered the store but was put on hold. When he picked up the phone after they left, he said, he was still on hold.
Attempts to reach the Oakland Police Department for comment were unsuccessful.
(Contact Victoria Colliver at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)