Crime of the times

Pharmacy robberies rise as side effect of opioid crisis

Janet Balbutin, owner of Chico Pharmacy and Paradise Drug, has increased security measures in response to recent robberies in the North State.

Janet Balbutin, owner of Chico Pharmacy and Paradise Drug, has increased security measures in response to recent robberies in the North State.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Personal security tips:
• Be alert, inside and around the pharmacy.
• Report suspicious activity to police.
• Don’t intervene and risk endangering yourself.
• If prescribed opioids, secure your pills and don’t tell others.

Janet Balbutin has been a pharmacist for 50 years, a period marked by numerous changes in her profession. Whether in a national chain or an independent store like those she owns, Chico Pharmacy and Paradise Drug, pharmacists face tightening regulations and increasing scrutiny from state and federal regulators—particularly for narcotic painkillers, or opioids.

They also face a growing threat that’s forced Balbutin, for one, to change the way she works.

In the past several years, the number of robberies at pharmacies has increased dramatically. California leads the nation for armed thefts of controlled prescription drugs, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, with 270 of the country’s 875 in 2017 (the most recent year compiled). California’s figure represents a 71 percent increase from the previous year and nearly triple the amount from 2015.

The rise coincides with efforts to combat the opioid crisis gripping the United States, rural regions especially.

Recently—locally—robberies of Rite Aids made headlines. From Sacramento to Redding, including Chico and Gridley, men have approached pharmacy counters demanding narcotics. Law enforcement officials connect the crimes because of similarities in each instance.

“It’s so scary for us,” Balbutin said. “We’re in a high-traffic area for offenders, and I’ve been a party to some cases where those offenders don’t care if they’re going to get caught, they just want this dose right now.”

Thieves have broken into her pharmacies 23 times, including three times in a three-month span two winters ago. Police identified one burglar, who took Xanax and Norco (a medium-strength opioid), as the son of a customer who’d been coming to Paradise Drug for decades.

There have been near-misses, too. Amber Denna, compliance and risk manager for the stores, said a man turned away at Paradise Drug went up the street and robbed Cobblestone Pharmacy (since closed). The pharmacies also received calls from a man claiming to be a doctor from Southern California prescribing large quantities of codeine cough syrup; when pressed for a diagnosis, he only could muster, “Real bad cough,” raising suspicion.

“When I called the [actual] doctor,” Denna continued, “the doctor said, ‘Do not have them in your store, they’re a gang from Sacramento—they’ll do anything.’

“Sometimes you’ll be able to call the police to arrest [perpetrators],” she added, “but then there’s those times when you could harm yourself, too [by intervening]. They’re desperate. They’ll do anything.”

In the Chico robbery, Feb. 26 at the Rite Aid on Mangrove Avenue, two men vaulted the counter and, after assaulting an employee, drove off in a white sedan with the narcotics they demanded. A week later, Feb. 1, Redding police say the same two men robbed a Rite Aid there; as in Chico, they jumped the counter and got away in a car registered out of the area.

March 6, three men strong-armed the Gridley Rite Aid for prescription drugs and fled on foot. Gridley Police arrested the suspects nearby in a white Toyota stolen out of Sacramento. One suspect from the Chico and Redding crimes was arrested in Sacramento, while the other remained at large as of the CN&R’s deadline.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien said these heists match others along the northern Sacramento Valley—even if not always the same individuals, the perpetrators may be a single group.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea and O’Brien see opioid thefts, whether robberies or overnight break-ins, as part of a broader pattern feeding addiction.

“A daytime robbery where people are present is certainly alarming,” Honea told the CN&R by phone. “That said, we’ve also experienced in this county burglaries of pharmacies where people are seeking opiates … and a definite increase of opioids on the streets, oftentimes in the form of heroin, but also fictitious oxycontin pills being sold or brought into the community which contain fentanyl.”

Oxycontin is a high-strength opioid, a synthetic form of morphine. Fentanyl is far more potent, 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and, thus, potentially fatal in even small doses. Chico attracted national news coverage in January when a man died and at least a dozen adults were treated at Enloe Medical Center after a mass overdose of fentanyl.

“If people are seeking oxycontin and the supply through pharmacies and other legitimate means has become more difficult to obtain,” Honea continued, “the fact that illegal drug suppliers are manufacturing fake oxycontin pills using fentanyl demonstrates there’s a significant problem [with addiction] but also represents a significant health problem.”

Along with heroin and fentanyl, O’Brien mentioned information about prescription painkiller use presented by Dr. Andy Miller, Butte County’s public health officer. Miller, alarmed by the amount of opioids in Butte County, championed community prescribing guidelines adopted by primary care providers and emergency room physicians (see “An uphill battle,” Healthlines, Nov. 2, 2017).

Miller declined to comment for this article, but he previously cited studies indicating greater effectiveness of opioids for relieving acute, or short-term, pain than chronic, or long-term, pain. Miller also pointed to risks of dependence and overdose that grow with protracted use.

“From what I’ve heard,” O’Brien said by phone, “we’ve created a whole other tier of addicts from this medication—in fact, I know of people who have died from this medication, these addictions.

“The genie was kind of out of the bottle, but then there was an effort to get some control, which is good. Then you had, I think, some more desperation.”

Balbutin said this clampdown period corresponds with the increase in robberies, a connection Honea and O’Brien also made. She’s invested in new security measures for both pharmacies, which are neighbors on Cohasset Road until Paradise Drug rebuilds from the Camp Fire, and increased private patrols.

She also has changed the way the staff—including her sister, Ava, and brother, Ray—operates. They’re more cautious, more observant. Delivery drivers use cars without signage. Employees get escorted to their cars. Balbutin, 74, has stopped working late and takes precautions as she drives home.

Said Denna: “It’s definitely something that’s always in the back of your mind.”