At around 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 13, a man in a blue hoodie, brown beanie, jeans, and work boots walked into a La Jolla CVS, and handed an employee a note stating that he had a gun and wanted Roxicodone — a generic name for the semi-synthetic morphine-like narcotic, oxycodone. The employee walked the note to the pharmacist, who complied with his demand. A few minutes later, the man walked out with hundreds of pills. None of the afternoon shoppers knew the store had been robbed.
The following Wednesday, January 21, just before noon, a man of similar build did the same at a La Mesa Walgreens, this time asking for oxycodone. Again, the robber made off with hundreds of pills in the middle of the afternoon without a scene.
On January 27, the Crime Stoppers unit announced a $1000 reward for information regarding either robbery, and Lt. Chris McGrath, unit commander of San Diego Police Department’s robbery division, says the department believes the two incidents are related. They do not believe that a third similar incident that took place at a Clairemont Albertsons pharmacy last October is related.
“The description [of the thief] is a little bit different and the M.O. as far as the language [in the note] is a little different,” McGrath says. “We don’t believe it’s going to be the same person.”
According to statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration, nationwide, pharmacy robberies dropped from 745 in 2012 to 712 in 2013. During that time, however, they nearly doubled in California — from 36 to 60 — which earned it the number-three spot on the top-ten states for pharmacy robberies. Arizona increased to 77 robberies (from 65) and took the top spot from Indiana, which decreased from 104 to 71.
San Diego police media relations officer Mark Herring wrote in an email, “SDPD does not keep stats specific to pharmacy robberies. When they occur, they fall into a commercial robbery category. For example, the pharmacy inside of a Vons gets robbed, the stat would track that robbery with Vons being the victim business, not specifically the pharmacy. Also there are cases where somebody may rob a pharmacy of money or just narcotics. There is no difference in the stat.”
On the street in San Diego, a five-milligram pill of oxycodone can go for as much as $20, according to users of the website streetrx.com. A more typical price for the area would be $5 for five milligrams, and in some parts of California, it can go as low as $1.
Nationally, the drug-overdose death rate doubled between 1999 and 2013, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, is now the leading cause of injury death in the United States. In 2013, 51.8 percent of drug-overdose deaths were related to pharmaceuticals, and of those 22,767 deaths, 71.3 percent involved opioid pain relievers.
In recent years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has set out to decrease prescription-drug abuse by tightening the reins on prescribing doctors and the pharmacies that dispense the drugs. All over the country, “candy doctors” and “pill mill doctors” have been arrested, fined, and sentenced to prison.
In 2012, as part of an investigation, the San Diego DEA sent an undercover agent to the office of Del Mar osteopath William Joseph Watson. Dr. Watson never asked to review the agent’s records or inquired about tests, x-rays or diagnoses before prescribing her (with a wink at the word “treatment”) 120 oxycodone pills. In June 2013, Watson was arrested and charged with selling thousands of prescriptions for highly addictive painkillers without any legitimate medical purpose. In December 2014, he was sentenced to five years in prison.
The Walgreen Company was fined $80 million in 2013 for failing to control the sale of painkillers, and CVS currently faces a potential $29 million fine for 37,000 prescription painkillers missing from four of its California stores. In 2012, Cardinal Health was fined $34 million for failing to report suspicious hydrocodone orders.
Doctor Sentenced for Selling Prescriptions
Some patients and doctors have complained that the DEA’s “crackdown” has resulted in increased difficulty for even legitimate users to obtain prescription painkillers. And DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno told a DC news channel that the circumstances have caused black-market prices to rise.
“The price of these drugs on the street has risen very high, to a dollar a milligram,” Carreno says. “You can pay $40 to $80 for a pill.”
In a 2013 document titled “Pharmacy Robberies, Burglaries and Thefts,” the task force created by the local DEA’s office of diversion control and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department noted the steady rise in California pharmacy robberies since 2007. The document also points out that the typical pharmacy robber is a white male age 20 to mid 30s. The majority are note passers, and the robbery occurs within 45 to 60 seconds. Pharmacy employees ought to comply with the demands, the document encourages. Most corporate company policies concur. Lt. McGrath says the San Diego Police Department will not interfere with the preventative security choices a company might make, but he does say that hiring a security guard could increase the likelihood of violence.
“If a criminal feels like he’s going to be detained or slowed down in his exit,” McGath says, “there’s always a chance that there could be additional confrontation.”
On January 29, three suspects robbed a Mira Mesa CVS, leaping over the pharmacy counter and stealing prescription pills. According to U-T San Diego, a man robbed an Escondido Rite Aid on February 21, stabbing the pharmacist in the shoulder and escaping with prescription drugs. McGrath says the police department does not believe either incident is related to the earlier robberies.