A young man armed with a hunting knife jumped a pharmacy counter in Guilford a couple of weeks ago and, after threatening the pharmacist, got away with a large amount of narcotics.

Pharmacy robberies — nonexistent several years ago — are dramatically increasing in Maine. There were 24 last year and eight already in the first three months of 2012.

The number of robberies has risen so fast that U.S. Attorney for Maine Thomas E. Delahanty II took notice and in mid-2010 spearheaded a multi-agency effort to review all such robberies to see if they qualify for federal prosecution.

“There was in 2010 a substantial increase, almost threefold, of armed robberies or nighttime break-ins at pharmacies, mostly for OxyContin or other painkillers,“ Delahanty said. “There is a demand for the prescription drugs, especially painkillers. I think some people see them as an easy target. They know they have the product.”

Maine drug addicts want prescription painkillers — OxyContin was the No. 1 choice for years and recently has been replaced by oxycodone — and the ones who arm themselves and rob pharmacies often are desperate junkies “feeding an opiate addiction,” said Mike Wardrop, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration resident agent for Maine.

“It’s bad business. It’s dangerous business,” he said.

There were two pharmacy robberies in 2008. In 2009, the year the DEA and Delahanty started collecting data, the number jumped to eight. It rose to 21 in 2010.

Most of the drugstores hit are located in southern Maine, but each county — except for Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Waldo and Washington — has been hit at least once in the last three years.

Portland was the only Maine community to see double digits, with Biddeford, Augusta, Lewiston, South Portland, Westbrook, Stonington, Camden, Millinocket, Bingham, Kittery, Saco and Sanford with at least two drugstore robberies since 2009, Delahanty’s data show.

The rise of OxyContin

“Pills were always an abused form of drug, but when doctors started to prescribe OxyContin, it took over. We were done,” Portland police Lt. Gary Rogers said.

Purdue Pharma began making OxyContin in the United States in 1996 and touted the time-release pain medication as a miracle drug that required only two pills a day for pain management, Wardrop said.

“We were the first state where Pharma marketed OxyContin and we never recovered,” the DEA agent said.

Users thought that “if a doctor prescribes it — it’s OK,” Wardrop said of OxyContin. “It’s dangerous. It’s in the same family as heroin.”

OxyContin, oxycodone and other prescription pills can be fatal if abused, with nearly 97 percent of all drug-related deaths in Maine connected to pharmaceuticals, according to state officials.

When someone is addicted to a drug, he “oftentimes resorts to other crimes, be it robbery or burglary, to continue that dependence on that drug,” observed Maine Drug Enforcement Agency director Roy McKinney.

But pharmacy robberies often are “purely profit-driven — it’s not to feed that addiction,” he said.

Robberies this year

This year’s first pharmacy robbery took place Jan. 2 at the Rite Aid in Gardiner. It was followed by drugstore robberies in Corinth on Jan. 4, Portland on Jan. 13, Saco on Feb. 19, Augusta on Feb. 13 and Feb. 20, Portland on March 6 and Guilford on March 10.

Whether the two most recent armed pharmacy robberies involved addicts or just people willing to risk their freedom for a quick buck is not known, but both are considered brazen crimes by law enforcement.

The pharmacy robber with the hunting knife jumped the counter at Rite Aid in Guilford at noon Saturday, March 10, and was seen on a video surveillance camera taking what police called a “considerable amount” of narcotics. The Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department is still looking for him.

A few days before that, two brothers — wearing Halloween masks and aided by a lookout man — went into a CVS pharmacy in Portland just before 8 p.m. They were armed with knives and threatened the clerk and pharmacist in order to get drugs.

“It was particularly violent,” Rogers said.

The trio reportedly fled with the stolen narcotics in a silver minivan to South Portland, where they were caught after a brief standoff.

Since diverted prescription pills sell on the streets of Maine for about $1 a milligram, “It doesn’t take much to make it worthwhile,” Rogers said.

“It’s a huge moneymaker,” Wardrop agreed.

‘A shared responsibility’

With the increased number of robberies, it only makes sense for local, state and federal agencies — and pharmacies — to work together to educate, monitor and enforce the laws, Wardrop said.

“It’s a shared responsibility,” the DEA agent said. “No one agency is going to be able to do this alone. We are making headway.”

Stopping the supply of diverted prescription drugs from getting into the hands of users is the DEA’s and the MDEA’s main goal, and that means catching and prosecuting pharmacy robbers, McKinney and Wardrop said.

The MDEA seized roughly 10,000 doses of controlled prescription drugs in 2009, more than 44,000 doses in 2010 — nearly half of which came from one pharmacy burglary — and in excess of 18,700 doses last year, McKinney said.

Delahanty has worked hand in hand with representatives of the DEA and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to establish the new pharmacy robbery review policy.

“Just because it’s a pharmacy doesn’t mean it falls under federal jurisdiction,” the U.S. attorney explained.

If a firearm is used in a drugstore robbery, however, ATF can step forward, or if the amount of drugs stolen exceeds $500, the DEA can get involved, he said, adding that local law enforcement or prosecutors also must request assistance.

“We wanted them to know we’re here and ready to help out as a resource,” Delahanty said.

“We have to partner with state and local agencies to get the best bang for our buck,” said Wardrop, who has offices in both Portland and Bangor. “We’re all one team. We’re all focused on catching the bad guy.”

While it is good that new policies are in place to prosecute serious offenders and steps are being taken to protect pharmacies and the people who work there, McKinney said he still worries about the drug addicts committing the crimes.

“If someone is going to arm themselves and commit a violent act, that is a sign of desperation,” the MDEA director said.

Addicts and drug dealers who break the law by possession and drug trafficking are just the tip of the iceberg of drug-related crimes, Wardrop noted.

“There is a ripple effect,” the federal drug agent said. “People are breaking into cars, breaking into houses, breaking into businesses, doing pharmacy robberies.”

Pharmacies react

In addition to the new federal drugstore robbery review policy, other precautions have been put in place in recent years, including a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program put online in July 2004, and state-mandated surveillance cameras at all pharmacies.

“We have become very offensive rather than defensive,” said Bill Miller, owner of Miller Drug in Bangor. “Everybody that walks into this store is on camera.”

The family-run store became a pharmacy in 1957 and never has been robbed, the second-generation pharmacist said, attributing that fact to having educated and aware employees.

“We’ve alerted our employees to look for certain signs,” Miller said. “We have a policy on procedures, if the store is robbed, and I also don’t mind saying we also have a direct line to the police station.”

Chester “Chet” Hibbard, owner and pharmacist at E.W. Moore and Son Pharmacy in Bingham, has not been so lucky. Three armed robberies have occurred in recent years at Hibbard’s pharmacy, which has been at the same location since 1890 and has been owned by him since 1994.

A man with a handgun robbed the Bingham pharmacy in 2006, knives were used in July 2010, and on Sept. 12, 2011, Hibbard and three other employees were bound with zip ties while a man armed with a shotgun took more than $12,000 worth of prescription pills.

“That one got picked up by the feds because of the loaded weapon and everyone being tied up,” Hibbard said.

The federal government also is prosecuting the armed robbery of a Millinocket pharmacy that took place in August 2011 involving a man with a 9 mm handgun, thanks to the new review policy, Delahanty said.

After his first robbery, Hibbard stopped carrying OxyContin and other painkillers, but having a sign clearly advertising the lack of narcotics does not stop desperate people with robbery on their minds, he said.

“If they’re coming in for that, it’s not going to make any difference,” Hibbard said. “I think they know most pharmacies want them in and out quickly.”

The Somerset County pharmacist, who has been doling out lifesaving medicines since the late 1970s, said he is seriously considering getting a concealed weapons permit for protection.

“Some friends of mine who are pharmacists, who have weapons, they can’t understand why I don’t,” Hibbard said. “I don’t think I’d ever want to shoot someone.”

Some pharmacies prohibit customers who are wearing hoodies, hats and dark glasses from entering, and others have installed quick exit doors near their pickup counters as precautionary measures to protect customers.

Hibbard said he has added security equipment and cameras, which has led to arrests.

“Everyone that has robbed us has been caught,” the Bingham pharmacy owner said.

A piece of good news is that even with the increase in armed robberies of Maine pharmacies, no one has been seriously hurt, Delahanty said.

“I think we have been extremely fortunate that in these there have been no injuries and no one has actually done any shooting,” he said.