PORTLAND — U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty II announced this morning that a surge in pharmacy robberies in southern Maine has led the federal government to offer investigative and prosecutorial resources to help out with the problem.

Several local police agencies have responded in recent months to pharmacy holdups where prescription drugs were taken.

Delahanty said there was a fivefold increase in pharmacy robberies from 2009 to 2010. He also said more than 90 percent of the 179 drug overdose deaths in 2009 in Maine were linked to prescription drugs.

Delahanty said from now on federal investigators will be consulted whenever local authorities respond to a pharmacy robbery, and whenever there is federal jurisdiction his office will prosecute.

The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency has identified the illegal sale and misuse of prescription medicines as the state’s most serious drug problem. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration this year organized a nationwide drug collection to help dispose of medicine that is no longer needed, noting that one of the primary sources of abused medicines is people’s home medicine cabinets.

The Maine Criminal Justice Academy also is developing a standard response plan for police investigating pharmacy robberies. 

According to the federal statistics, there have been 26 pharmacy robberies in the past two years, half of them in York County. The most recent robbery occurred at a Sanford Rite Aid Friday.

Delahanty said there were just four pharmacy robberies in 2009 and 21 in 2010.

“Today, OxyContin, and its various cousins, is the drug of choice,” he said at a news conference. “We are very fortunate that there have not been any injuries in any of these robberies to date.”

Maine Attorney General, William Schneider, said rural areas may be seeing a disproportionate share of robberies because other illegal drugs may be more easily obtained in urban areas.

Delahabnty also announced that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will be conducting another prescription drug collection aimed at getting expired and unneeded prescriptions out of people’s medicine cabinets, where they can be stolen for illicit use.

The DEA coordinated a collection effort on Sept. 25 in which Maine collected more unwanted prescriptions per capita than any other state, said DEA’s resident agent in charge in Maine, Michael Wardrop.

The next collection is set for April 30, he said.