October 2001 issue Pharmacy Today magazine
Armed robberies and burglaries of pharmacies look to be on the rise for the first time in nearly a decade.
One drug squad detective suggests the recent spate of hold-ups and break-ins may be the result of pharmacists making the purchasing of pseudoephedrine-based products more difficult for speed lab operators.
In the first eight months of this year, 37 incidents, including seven armed robberies, were reported to the Pharmaceutical Society. This compares with 32 reported burglaries and six armed robberies for all of last year.
For most of the 1990s, the annual number of reported incidents has hovered around 80.
Pharmaceutical Society staff pharmacist for practice and legislation, Euan Galloway, says reporting to the society is not mandatory and is likely to under-represent the real number.
Of the 30 break-ins reported this year, 12 were in Christchurch and eight in Auckland. Auckland was on the receiving end of four armed robberies and Wellington pharmacies experienced three.
Recent incidents, not yet included in the society's figures, include, a man pleading guilty to the armed robbery of the Campus Pharmacy in Dunedin and 10 pharmacy burglaries in one week in West Auckland.
West Auckland's Royal Heights pharmacy was hit twice in three days with burglars taking advantage of shopfitters not properly securing the pharmacy during renovations.
Owner Murray Sinton estimates damage to the premises of around $10,000 for a haul of $300-$400 of pseudoephedrine-based products. It took three days to secure and clean up the pharmacy and he expects a major battle to get his insurance company to pay up.
"I'd like to see the powers that be in the (health) ministry accept that pharmacy is a high-risk profession and look at other ways of controlling pseudoephedrine," he said.
Drug intelligence analyst Constable Scott Fergusson has been working with a number of west Auckland pharmacies and believes several now have protocols in place to minimise their risk of being hit.
He says some pharmacies are asking for ID when they're suspicious about the motives for pseudoephedrine purchases, even if it is only one pack. He also believes those pharmacies that keep just one pack on the shelf, and say they have no more in stock, reduce their risk of being targetted.
"If the offenders believe you only keep one pack in stock, they won't bother coming back - it's not worth it," he said.
Canterbury Pharmaceutical Society and Pharmacy Guild branches established a programme two years ago to help with the aftermath of local robberies. The programme co-ordinates counselling and locum pharmacists to temporarily take over for traumatised staff.
The Pharmacy Guild's southern chairman Nigel Matsas says the shock of such crimes can leave some people emotionally devastated for years.
Liaison officer for the guild's northern branch, Lynne Bye, urges pharmacists to keep to their security SOPs and not to close up alone.
She also suggests pharmacy staff be alert for people "casing" the premises.
Head of the national Clandestine Drug Laboratory Team, Detective Sergeant Mike Beal has noticed a trend over the last few months.
Speed lab operators originally obtained their raw materials from burgling chemical companies. As the companies beefed-up security, speed manufacturers began to send associates to buy pseudoephedrine-based medicines from pharmacies.
"Pharmacists are more aware and more proactive and it's getting harder to buy it (pseudoephedrine-based medicines) over the counter."
Of the 47 speed labs discovered since 1997, 29 have been uncovered this year - most in Auckland.
Mike Beal says Pseudoephedrine buyers have added medicines such as Telfast and Dimetapp sinus liquids and cold and flu products, to their shopping lists.
He says his staff have been unable to contact each pharmacy providing information, but pharmacy's co-operation is paying off.
The team's database indicates around 80% of calls from pharmacies provide relevant information, often useful in future prosecutions.