Pharmacy robberies are at an all-time high this year, the latest reverberation of what has become one of Maine’s most far-reaching criminal and medical issues – prescription drug abuse.

There were nearly 40 pharmacy robberies in Maine in the first eight months of 2012, after just 24 in all of 2011. They are desperate crimes committed by desperate people, and their impact is being felt by the people across the state, particularly pharmacy employees who have to work in fear of robberies.

Joe Bruno, president of the Community Pharmacies chain and a former state legislator, said he has had employees quit due to the stress that comes with working at a pharmacy.

“Some people just don’t have the personality to be able to handle this stuff,” Bruno said. “You are in fear of your life. If someone says, ‘I have a gun and will use it if you don’t give me drugs,’ it shakes people up.”

Bruno serves as chairman of the Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force, established earlier this year by Gov. Paul LePage. The group was charged with developing substance disposal solutions, implementing a statewide alert system for the diversion of controlled substances, developing a public education campaign, and reviewing the Maine Prescription Monitoring Program.

The group released in July a preliminary report detailing its first six months of work. Already, steps have been taken to cut the cost of disposal programs, and the task force suggests the consistency be brought to the regulatory jurisdictions and outreach efforts connected to the programs. The group is also seeking grant funding for the implementation of a statewide system to alert providers when people have been arrested and charged with criminal drug offenses. The group has identified $406,000 in expenditures needed for an education program, but it is unclear where that funding would come from.

Much of the task force’s work has been focused on cutting the supply of prescription medications used for illicit purposes. Disposal programs cut down on the sheer number of controlled substances available on the street, and diversion alerts help make sure medications do not make it into the wrong hands.

But the problem of prescription drug abuse cannot be addressed without looking at the demand side of the equation. In the decade since opiate abuse, in the form of Oxycontin, was first identified as a major problem in Maine, it has become increasingly difficult to get the powerful painkillers most associated with abuse. Doctors are less likely to prescribe them, prescriptions are monitored more heavily, and some pharmacies do not even keep the drugs on hand.

Still, addiction thrives, at a very high cost, both to the addicts and to taxpayers, who foot the bill for the rising crime and incarceration rates related to addiction. Left unaddressed, addiction will continue to grow, and addicts will do what they need to do to find drugs, until they are caught and placed in the costly criminal justice system. Unless treatment programs and drug courts are funded and used to keep addicts from escalating their crimes and put them back on a path of meaningful contribution, all the other efforts will do very little to cut the rate and cost of drug crimes, and keep people safe.

– Ben Bragdon, managing editor

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