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Originally published April 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 2, 2008 at 11:58 AM

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OxyContin abuse in region soars

The illicit use of the painkiller, especially among teens, has driven up its street price, which has made pharmacies robbery targets.

Seattle Times staff reporter

They're breaking into nursing homes, storming pharmacies with guns drawn, forging prescriptions and holding homeowners captive while rummaging through their medicine cabinets.

Forget those addicts setting up camp in dilapidated shacks in the Cascades foothills, cooking up their fix with sulfuric acid, allergy medicine, acetone and maybe a splash of paint thinner. Police across the region say that methamphetamine's popularity is quickly being outpaced by the powerful prescription painkiller simply known as "Oxy."

In its intended form, OxyContin is a widely prescribed narcotic similar to morphine. But when crushed, melted and smoked, it provides a high like heroin. Local narcotics officers say that because of the drug's popularity, especially among teens, Oxy commands a street value of $80 per pill.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), prescription-drug abuse is quickly closing in on marijuana as the country's most popular illicit drug. Nearly 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs in 2007 — an 80 percent increase since 2000, according to DEA statistics.

Because of Oxy's high price, thieves are willing to do nearly anything to get their hands on it.

With an increase in armed robberies at pharmacies, many businesses have stopped stocking the popular drug, said Steven Saxe, executive director of the Washington Board of Pharmacy.

"It has replaced methamphetamine as the scourge," said Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Matt Baldock. "It is highly, highly addictive."

On Tuesday, the National Community Pharmacists Association announced RxPatrol — a collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and law enforcement. The program will publicize details about robberies, as well as post information about crimes on its Web site: www.rxpatrol.com.

Seattle police are working with RxPatrol as well as the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators — which focuses on the investigation and prosecution of drug-prescription forgery.

Seattle police Capt. Mike Meehan said that his detectives investigated about 100 drug-forgery cases in 2007. But with the crime resulting in a maximum of only six months in jail for a first-time offender, Meehan said, there is no real deterrent for people not to forge a doctor's signature.

Stiffer penalties

Meehan said he plans to ask the Legislature to not only pass stiffer penalties for people convicted of prescription forgery. He also wants the state to require doctors to e-mail prescriptions for potent painkillers directly to pharmacies.

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Seattle police Detective Steve Smith points out that during the methamphetamine epidemic the Legislature passed a law ordering that businesses selling ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or phenylpropanolamine — ingredients commonly in cold and allergy medications — keep a log of who purchased the drugs. The move, he said, drastically reduced the amount of meth cases local police have seen.

But, Smith said, pharmacies regularly will accept prescriptions for OxyContin and other painkillers without identification.

Meantime, more and more of the cases are being tried federally, where penalties are potentially stiffer.

Last week, an Everett man who helped lead nearly two dozen people in breaking into pharmacies across California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington between 2004 and 2006 was sentenced to six years in prison. Joshua James and others disabled pharmacy telephone lines before entering closed businesses to steal OxyContin and other high-level prescription drugs, according to the U.S Attorney's Office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Friedman said he started focusing on prescription-drug cases when he learned of the pharmacy ring in 2005. He describes many pharmacy robbers as "desperate" addicts between the ages of 16 and 30 committing a crime that 85 percent of them will caught for.

Friedman said he has prosecuted pharmacy robbers as well as drug users, drug dealers, doctors and pharmacists.

"We try to jump in at all levels," Friedman said. "This is a much worse problem than people smoking marijuana."

Pharmacy robberies

In recent months, pharmacy robbers have struck from Tacoma to Lynnwood.

On Dec. 11, King County sheriff's deputies arrested a 28-year-old man in connection with seven pharmacy robberies in eight days. Armed with a knife, the man demanded OxyContin from pharmacy workers in Shoreline, Seattle, Edmonds and Lynnwood, said sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart.

On Feb. 16, Tacoma police were dispatched to a pharmacy robbery at the Cost Less Pharmacy on Pacific Avenue. Three men were arrested for stealing OxyContin at gunpoint, said Tacoma police spokesman Mark Fulghum.

On the morning of March 18, a man dressed in a hooded sweat shirt and sunglasses robbed a Walgreens store at Highway 99 and 168th Street Southwest in Lynnwood at gunpoint. He ran out of the store with an undisclosed amount of OxyContin pills, according to Lynnwood police.

Walgreens spokeswoman Carol Hively said that the company routinely pulls OxyContin from the shelves of stores that have been robbed. According to the DEA, 25 percent of drug-related emergency-room visits are associated with prescription-drug abuse. The King County Medical Examiner's Office investigated 148 prescription-drug deaths in 2006 — a figure that was higher than deaths caused by cocaine, heroin and other street drugs.

"You have kids who have these drugs much more available because they themselves have valid prescriptions or their parents have OxyContin around," said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Cornell, who works with drug-enforcement officers in Snohomish County drug.

"It doesn't have the stigma associated with heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. Young people don't see themselves as junkies."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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