Last June, a sledgehammer-wielding thief broke into the Eastside Family Pharmacy in Snellville, slithered past the store's motion detectors and stole thousands of dollars worth of pain pills and other medication for cancer and sickle cell patients. It was the second time Esther Truitt's pharmacy had been hit in three months. Thieves got away with nearly $40,000 worth of drugs in the two break-ins.
In December, burglars netted about 9,000 Oxycodone pills valued at $12,000 from a Walgreens in Stockbridge.
The crimes aren’t limited to burglaries. They’re taking an increasingly brazen turn. In January, a woman armed with a gun robbed the Forsyth Pharmacy and Specialty Center of an undisclosed amount of various medications. Police believe the same woman robbed a Norcross pharmacy last fall.
The crimes illustrate the scope of the nation’s ongoing drug epidemic.
Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States, surpassing car accidents. More than 50,000 Americans died from drug overdose in 2015. Most of those deaths were tied to heroin use and the abuse of prescription pain pills known as opiods. In 2015, the opioid crisis claimed more than 33,000 lives, the most opioid deaths in a single year, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 91 Americans die each day from opioid overdose.
Two years ago, Georgia recorded 1,307 drug overdose deaths. Roughly seven in 10 of those deaths were due to opioids, including heroin, according to the Substance Abuse Research Alliance (SARA) Georgia Prevention Project.
The epidemic has left a devastating imprint in Georgia during the last 16 years. Deaths from prescription opioid overdoses increased tenfold between 1999 and 2015 to 549 deaths, putting the state among the nation’s Top 11 states with the most deaths from opiod overdose.
By 2014, 55 of Georgia’s 159 counties had higher drug overdose rates than the national average. That’s a dramatic change from about a decade ago when 23 counties exceeded the U.S. average, SARA said. Most of the cases are in rural areas without access to drug treatment centers.
Earlier this month, a bi-partisan coalition of 23 members of Congress asked President Trump to add $9.3 billion to the nation’s fiscal 2018 budget to fight the crisis.
Here in Georgia, efforts to crackdown on over-prescribing pain management clinics known as pill mills have led to the surge in pharmacy thefts around the state.Authorities with the Drug Enforcement Administration estimate hundreds of thousands of dollars of drugs have been stolen from Georgia pharmacies in the last year.
“A contributing factor is the crackdown on pill mills,” said Rick Allen, director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, which oversees all pharmacies and prescription drugs activities in the state.
In addition, there’s more oversight of doctors who tended to overprescribe medications which forces patients to look elsewhere to feed their addiction.
Allen estimates that at least 100 pill mills were operating in Georgia several years ago. State lawmakers have since instituted tougher licensing laws and local law enforcement has gone after physicians accused of arbitrarily over-prescribing narcotics. The result has led to about a third of the pill mills shutting down, Allen said.
The unwitting effects of the state’s get-tough stance are now showing up at pharmacy counters.
“With the pill mills closing down, we’ve seen an increase in the number of burglaries, robberies and (employee) pilferage,” Allen said. “The demand or need for prescription drugs is still there. The black market just finds a source. People who went to pill mills to get drugs to sell have to find another source and that source has become pharmacies. Either that or addicts turn to heroin.”
Despite fewer pill mills, prescription drug abuse continues to soar. Typically, drug store thieves are after oxycodone, methadone, Valium, Percocet, Xanax, and other medications, experts says. Opiates often are prescribed to help relieve pain from surgery, injuries and other medical conditions because they send a pain-blocking signals to the brain.
Their customers extend beyond back-alley addicts to suburban housewives, high school athletes, star pupils and white-collar executives.
Supplying the insatiable demand for prescription drugs is a highly risky and dangerous venture but a lucrative one when you consider one opiate pill can go for anywhere from $25 to $50 a pill on the street, depending on the strength of the pill, police say.
Consequently, criminals willing to take the risk have gotten bolder.
The increasing crimes — fueled by the opiate crisis — has placed Georgia among the top 10 states in the nation with the most armed robberies of pharmacies, according to DEA data. Georgia recorded 19 armed robberies between January and October of last year, ranking it ninth in the nation, the DEA report noted. That’s up from four armed robberies of pharmacies five years ago. Georgia ranked 35th at that time.
In addition to the armed robberies, Georgia has had 112 break-ins and burglaries of pharmacies since March of last year, an Atlanta DEA official said.
The types of thieves run the gamut: Some work in groups known as rings or crews. Others prefer to work alone.
They’re venturing beyond metro Atlanta, taking their crime spree on the road to smaller communities.
Putnam County is about 80 miles east of Atlanta. Its three pharmacies serve a population of just under 7,000. It saw its first drug store armed robbery in November 2015. Similarly, police in Athens, Conyers, LaGrange, Rockdale, Snellville and other communities have reported a surge in drug store thefts in the last couple of years.
“It’s coming from Atlanta and spreading southward and east to west,” said Putnam Sheriff Howard Sills who noted the suspect in his county’s armed robbery was James Anthony Baker, a 28-year-old from Gwinnett County who was strung out on Oxycodine when he committed the crime.”It’s unusual but quite candidly we’re experiencing more Atlanta crime.”
Allen says his agency is seeing burglaries in “Eatonton, Madison, Athens, all inside the Perimeter and outside the Perimeter.”
“Robbing crews have popped up more frequently in the last two years,” Allen said. Often it’s a lone individual wearing a mask and armed with a note demanding drugs.
Pharmacist Truitt sees the devastation upclose and is feeling its impact. Her store, Eastside Family Pharmacy which was broken into twice last year, is near Eastside hospital and a pain clinic.
Eastside Family has since upgraded its security system. Truitt said her store isn’t the only one affected by the thefts. She says she knows of pharmacy robberies in Chamblee, Braselton, Lawrenceville and the one in late January in Forsyth County that she unwittingly overheard while on the phone with that store’s pharmacist.
When the pain pills are stolen it’s heartbreaking not to have the medication when customers need it, said Truitt, co-owner of the pharmacy. “I can replace it but it’s going to take a couple of days to replace and that’s a couple of days of them going without their medication.”
A SAMPLING OF PHARMACY THEFTS IN GEORGIA
Here’s a look at some opiate thefts from pharmacies around the state.
April 2016 -- Eastside Family Pharmacy in Snellville. $26,000
June 2016 -- Eastside Family Pharmacy in Snellville. $12,000
December 2016 -- Walgreen’s in Stockbridge. $12,000
January 2017 -- Forsyth Pharmacy and Specialty Center in Forsyth County. Unknown