Police, pharmacy owners fear that brazen thugs seeking OxyContin will start shooting.
Mask-wearing robbers are targeting small drugstores throughout the Twin Cities, often threatening employees and forcing customers to the floor at gunpoint to feed their OxyContin habits or sell the narcotic to a demanding market.
The brazen crooks are going after these "ma and pa" operations instead of chain pharmacies because they have less security, fewer customers and are easier to scope out, police say.
"These are seasoned criminals using firearms and scaring the heck out of people," said Lt. Mike Fossum, head of the Minneapolis Police Department's robbery and assault unit. "One time somebody will resist, and they could be shot accidentally or on purpose."
Most of the robberies have been in Minneapolis, but a drugstore near St. Louis Park's Excelsior and Grand shopping district was robbed twice, most recently on March 15. Some drugstore owners are fighting back by adding security guards or dropping OxyContin, a prescription narcotic used to treat moderate to severe pain, altogether.
"I think what people are most concerned with is the aggressiveness of the robberies," said Justin Pacult, who hired a full-time armed security guard after two robberies at his north Minneapolis pharmacy last year. "Most are going to comply with a gun in your face, so why do that?"
If the pace of robberies continues -- eight since October and three so far in 2012 -- the numbers will easily surpass the seven cases reported statewide in 2011, bucking a national trend that has seen a drop in pharmacy robberies. There were 663 in 2011, down from 758 in 2010, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Locally, police and pharmacy industry officials speculate that the increase may be due to a group of criminals pushing their luck until they finally get caught or due to the tough economy. Fossum said a 100-milligram OxyContin pill can sell for $100.
As abuse of OxyContin grew, the company that makes it reformulated it to make it less desirable to criminals. Users would crush the pill and either snort or inject it. In the last few years, OxyContin was redesigned to lose its potency if crushed, said Barbara Carreno, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington.
Two robberies, no arrests
On March 15, two men wearing masks jumped over the counter at Best Aid Pharmacy in St. Louis Park, put a gun to an employee's head and demanded to know where the pharmacy stored OxyContin.
The owner, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Boris, for safety reasons, said he did nothing wrong as far as safety precautions. The pharmacy has a security camera and an alarm button to signal the security company. It took police less than five minutes to arrive, but the robbers were already gone. No arrests have been made in that robbery or a similar one on Dec. 21.
"It is a very safe area," the owner said of the store's location on well-traveled Excelsior Boulevard. "Everything is on our shoulders for safety. I wish police could supply cameras for our parking lot."
Store owners are hesitant to put up bulletproof glass or other security barriers that would prevent patient accessibility to pharmacists, said Cody Wibert, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.
Wibert wasn't surprised to hear about the rise in robberies involving the smaller, independent pharmacies, which are located mostly in urban areas. Pharmacies must report the loss of any significant amount of a controlled substance to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Board of Pharmacy also is notified. He has seen a spurt of armed pharmacy robbery reports in the last six to nine months.
Last year, Minneapolis had 11 armed robberies of pharmacies, down 50 percent from 2010. Fossum said the city's five most recent cases happened on the city's North Side, on E. Franklin Avenue and downtown. They may be connected to the robbery in St. Louis Park, he said. Police are also investigating a similar robbery at Lloyd's Pharmacy in St. Paul in February.
Moving to avoid trouble
VitaLife Pharmacy in north Minneapolis was robbed twice last year at its previous location on the corner of 42nd and Fremont Avenues N. Pacult, the store owner and pharmacist, said the building had no windows because the previous owner blocked them off, probably to prevent nighttime break-ins.
On June 2, about 10 customers were in the pharmacy picking up snacks and prescriptions during the opening rush, when two men with guns stormed in and told them to get on the floor. Pacult complied with the robbers' demands and said he tried to stay "as calm as you can be with a gun to your head." The men took OxyContin and what little money was in the register, he said.
The men had covered their faces, so the dozen cameras in the store were of little use. The pharmacy stopped carrying OxyContin. After a second heist in October, Pacult hired a security guard to be on duty from open to close.
The robberies were "the straw that broke the camel's back" that prompted Pacult to move to a new building in December on the 4100 block of Thomas Avenue N., about a mile from the old location. It has big windows at the storefront, so he can easily see who's coming into his store, and an armed guard who sits near the register in the back, where Pacult fills prescriptions, about 65 feet from the entrance.
"It is costly, but you cannot put a price on your life," said Pacult. "It's do business that way or I wouldn't do it at all after what happened."
Kaitlyn Walsh, a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment to the Star Tribune, contributed to this report. David Chanen • 612-673-4465