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Police say pharmacy robberies have increased significantly in recent years. Thieves typically seek narcotics including OxyContin, codeine and fentanyl

CP Video

Rudy Chin remembers when it happened to him.

It was August, 2014, and the pharmacy had just opened for the morning when two masked men burst in. They demanded money and drugs, which Mr. Chin and another pharmacist quickly handed over.

"It was scary, but it was also quick," he said. "They were in and out. They knew what they wanted."

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Mr. Chin's Vancouver pharmacy was one of 39 that were robbed in British Columbia in 2014. Police say pharmacy robberies have increased significantly in recent years, with the majority taking place in the Lower Mainland, and that they are becoming more violent. So far this year, there have been 41 pharmacy robberies across B.C.

Thieves typically seek narcotics including OxyContin, codeine and fentanyl – the last being a powerful synthetic opioid that has resulted in a rash of high-profile overdoses in recent years.

Responding to the increase, the College of Pharmacists of B.C. on Tuesday announced that, effective immediately, all 1,200 pharmacies in the province are required to store their drugs in time-delay safes, making B.C. the first jurisdiction in North America to mandate such a security measure.

After an employee enters a code on a time-delay safe, a set amount of time has to elapse – typically a few minutes but sometimes up to an hour – before the safe can be opened. This eliminates the immediate availability of the items inside. Time-delay safes are commonly used in banks and jewellery stores.

At B.C. pharmacies, a small amount of drugs will be available for daily transactions, while the larger cache will be stored in the safe.

College Board Chair Anar Dossa said pharmacists and pharmacy technicians became aware of the growing number of robberies a few years ago and in 2013 struck a committee with police to address it. That committee met several times over the past 18 months and began informing pharmacies of the new mandate a few months ago.

"People were emotionally affected by [the robberies]," Ms. Dossa said in an interview on Tuesday. "People would not be able to go to work. That was a concern."

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Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said that, while violent crimes are generally decreasing in the city, pharmacy robberies have been bucking the trend.

"We're talking about crimes where we're seeing people armed with weapons including guns, knives, scissors, machetes, clubs, crowbars and pepper spray," Chief Palmer said. "And in 85 per cent of these robberies, people are wearing disguises."

The diversion of pharmaceutical drugs can be a highly lucrative business. A single 60-milligram tablet of the slow-release morphine MS Contin, for example, can sell for upward of $35 on the street. In a pharmacy, that tablet costs about $1.70, according to the Council on Drug Abuse.

Chief Palmer attributed B.C.'s recent uptick in robberies to criminals viewing pharmacies as soft targets.

"Years ago, we weren't seeing these types of robberies, but people realized that these things were readily available and word gets out amongst criminals," he said. "We were seeing groups of criminals going around throughout Metro Vancouver, targeting a number of pharmacies in Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and other municipalities."

Walgreens, the largest retail pharmacy chain in the U.S., began installing time-delay safes in some of its locations in 2009, reportedly resulting in a 75- to 85-per-cent reduction in pharmacy robberies. Phil Caruso, a spokesman for the chain based in Deerfield, Ill., could not confirm the number but said there has been a "significant decline" in robberies at the stores that have the technology. Walgreens has time-delay safes installed in locations in 13 states, Mr. Caruso said.

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Earlier this month, CVS/pharmacy announced it had installed the safes in more than 150 stores in Indiana, which leads the U.S. in pharmacy robberies, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. More than 130 pharmacies had reported robberies from January to September.

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