The theft of narcotics such as oxycodone, fentanyl and codeine from British Columbia pharmacies has dropped significantly since the province became the first jurisdiction in Canada to mandate time-delay safes.
There have been only five pharmacy robberies in B.C. since the mandate came into effect five months ago, and those narcotics – required to be stored in the safes – were stolen in only one of them, when the safe happened to be unlocked, said Gillian Vrooman, director of communications and engagement at the College of Pharmacists of B.C. In comparison, there were 41 pharmacy robberies last year, and 39 in 2014.
"We're considering this preliminary – and we're going to take a look six months, and a year out, to really look at the stats – but we're certainly encouraged," Ms. Vrooman said.
The college introduced the security measure in mid-September after hearing from pharmacists who were concerned about a growing number of robberies in recent years. Police said the robberies were not only increasing in frequency but becoming more violent. More than 90 per cent of pharmacy robberies in the province were committed with a weapon, according to the college.
The increase coincided with the tightening grip of Canada's opioid epidemic and the rise of illicit fentanyl as a deadly street drug. While most illicit fentanyl in Western Canada comes from illegally imported fentanyl powder, there is also a market for fentanyl transdermal patches stolen from pharmacies.
Time-delay safes work by requiring a certain amount of time to elapse between when the code is entered and when the safe opens, eliminating the immediate availability of the items inside. They are commonly used in banks and jewellery stores. Prior to the September mandate, B.C. pharmacies typically kept narcotics in locked cabinets or regular safes.
At the September announcement, Vancouver police Chief Adam Palmer attributed the 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."
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.
B.C. pharmacies still see break and enters, defined by police as trespassing with intent to commit a crime, such as theft, typically when no one else is around. (In comparison, a robbery is a theft under threat or use of force.)
"They're not able to access the safes, which are well secured, but they're grabbing anything else that presents itself when they're inside," said Corporal Scotty Schumann, spokesman for the Surrey RCMP.
"One thing that we see is that credit card receipts are being stolen for identity theft. Another thing would be pain medication or cold medication; sometimes precursors for illicit drugs can be leached out of those products."
From Nov. 2, 2015, to Jan. 16, there were 12 break and enters or attempted break and enters at smaller independent pharmacies in Surrey, Langley and Abbotsford, all believed to be linked based on the method in which they were committed, Cpl. Schumann said. In two of those incidents, the suspects failed to gain entry. Narcotics weren't taken in any of them.
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.