Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said he first noticed the beginnings of Maine’s prescription drug abuse epidemic about a decade ago.

Then, he saw that many of those his department arrested for illicit drug offenses also carried prescription drugs with them.

“It seemed every time we’d arrest someone, they had prescription drugs on them,” he said.

Waterville’s first pharmacy robbery for the specific purpose of getting prescription drugs was in 2010. The city has since had two more.

“It’s all they want — ‘Give me the drugs,'” he said.

Since last August, there have been 12 robberies in Kennebec and Somerset County pharmacies from Gardiner to Bingham, according to published reports.

Over that time period, two Augusta pharmacies, CVS Pharmacy’s 2 Stone St. store and Rite Aid’s 2007 North Belfast Ave. store, have each been hit twice by robbers demanding prescription drugs. The most recent robbery occurred Tuesday night at the CVS.

Maine’s U.S. attorney, Thomas Delahanty II, said Wednesday that 2012 is shaping up to be state’s worst year ever for prescription-drug related pharmacy robberies. Five months into the year, there have been 12 such robberies statewide, he said. Eight of those robberies have been at CVS and Rite Aids in Augusta, Gardiner, Pittsfield, Winslow and Waterville.

The problem has steadily grown in Maine over the past three years. Delahanty provided statewide statistics showing a total of eight drug-related thefts at pharmacies in 2009 — four daytime robberies and four nighttime burglaries when the stores were closed. In 2010, that spiked to 21, and only one was overnight.

Then, in 2011, there were 24, with two overnight.

Increasing security

Delahanty, Massey and Augusta Police Chief Robert Gregoire all said they believe the majority of the robberies are motivated by a combination of personal addiction and the ability to resell for a lot of money.

Massey said OxyContin, Valium, oxycodone and suboxone are the most common abused drugs he sees.

Delahanty said robbers are “getting very specific not only with type or brand name, but dosages as well.”

Chester Hibbard, the owner of at E.W. Moore & Son Pharmacy on Main Street in Bingham, knows the problem all too well. He has been robbed three times since 2006, all by people looking for OxyContin, which he has said he stopped carrying after the first robbery.

The most recent time, in September, Hibbard and three employees were bound with zip ties as a man with a shotgun stole more than $12,000 in pills. A Sangerville man was arrested the next morning for the robbery.

“I increased the quality of my cameras, the quantity (and improved) the placement. I have infrared cameras that can see in the dark. I’m contemplating putting some cameras outside,” Hibbard said. “The only thing you can do is increase security.”

Eric Harkreader, a Rite Aid spokesman, said his company uses “an array of confidential tactics to both assist authorities in apprehending their suspects and deter and protect against future incidents.” He said Rite Aids robberies nationwide have declined over the past three years, but Maine is one the company’s higher-frequency areas.

Harkreader declined to discuss details of tactics used to combat robbery attempts. A CVS spokesman didn’t return a message seeking comment.

At least one area Rite Aid has employed a tracking device to help police potentially nab a robber. Last Thursday, when the Pittsfield Rite Aid was robbed, police said an employee snuck a GPS device into a bag the robber gave the employee to fill with specific dosages of OxyContin and Percocet.

Town police said the GPS activated when the robber left the Somerset Avenue store and showed he headed north on Interstate 95. The robber hasn’t yet been caught.

Gregoire said the devices are in Kennebec County pharmacies, but since stores share them, he doesn’t know exactly where.

He and Massey said that because pharmacy employees have always cooperated with robberies, violent ends have been averted.

“You need to cooperate,” Gregoire said. “It’s a dangerous situation.”

Hibbard said that while cooperating with possibly armed robbers is necessary, it also invites quick, easy hits.

“The robbers know that,” he said. “They kind of take advantage of that situation.”

Massey said he’s trying to give local pharmacy employees a heightened awareness of what to do in the case of robbery. On May 31, he’ll give a presentation and hold a question-and-answer session in Waterville’s city council chambers. Gregoire said he’ll likely hold a similar workshop in Augusta shortly after the one in Waterville.

‘A real systemic problem’

Lawmakers are also trying to grapple with the growing threat posed by prescription drug addictions.

State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, also an attorney, proposed an amendment to the Department of Health and Human Services’ supplemental budget passed earlier this year that would limit new opioid prescriptions to 45 days to MaineCare members over 21, with some exemptions.

That rule should have taken effect April 1, but DHHS has held up its implementation because of concerns of conflict with federal Medicaid regulations that say time limits can’t be imposed on a certain class of drugs, Katz said.

According to DHHS spokesman John Martins, there are legal concerns about the proposed cap of 45 days.

“Obviously, this is a problem that needs to be attacked from a lot of different vantage points — of course, law enforcement, the courts and physician practices,” Katz said.

Katz said he will present language this week for inclusion in the next DHHS supplemental budget, to be decided later this month by legislators, that would replace the contested amendment. It would establish a limit on reimbursement for certain MaineCare patients getting treatment deviating from a recommended state pain management plan.

That plan proposes some limits on opioid prescriptions with many exceptions in the proposed language, including patients with cancer, HIV or AIDS, those in in-patient or hospice care, or those who fail to respond well to the plan.

“So many people become addicted to prescription drugs totally innocently. That is, they break their leg and stay on opioids too long,” Katz said. “It’s becoming a real systemic problem.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632

[email protected]

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said the Sangerville man arrested for the September 2011 Bingham robbery was arrested in October. He was arrested the morning following the robbery. The mistake has been fixed in the story.

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