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Walgreens hopes special safes suppress OxyContin robberies

Signs announce the installation of time-delay safes at the Walgreens store  at Division Street and Empire Avenue in Spokane. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)
Signs announce the installation of time-delay safes at the Walgreens store at Division Street and Empire Avenue in Spokane. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

OxyContin robberies in Washington have prompted an unprecedented response from one of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains.

New time-delayed safes have been installed in Walgreens pharmacies across the state to hold supplies of the powerful painkiller.

The timed locks take several minutes to open, halting immediate access to a prescription drug that’s prompted about a dozen robberies at Spokane County Walgreens stores since last fall, often at gunpoint or knifepoint.

“We’re trying to get the word out: Leave us alone,” said Brad Hancock, manager of the Walgreens at Empire Avenue and Division Street in Spokane.

Company officials see the safes as both a deterrent for robbers and a way to help ensure arrests.

“They should stay closed long enough for police to arrive,” said Robert Elfinger, Walgreens spokesman.

Walgreens installed the safes only in Washington, where Elfinger said pharmacy robberies outnumber those in all other states.

“Pharmacy robberies in Washington state have gotten out of hand,” Elfinger said. “We needed to do this to protect our employees and customers.”

Installation took a few weeks. The safes were activated Saturday.

Walgreens has spent millions of dollars to upgrade security systems and surveillance cameras in hopes of curbing a growing problem.

One pill of OxyContin, an opium-based narcotic that produces a heroin-like high when the time-release capsules are crushed, then injected, snorted or smoked, can fetch $50 to $100 on the black market, depending on the dose.

At least seven robberies or attempted robberies have been reported in Spokane County since June, including two attempted robberies at Hancock’s store on Empire Avenue.

A payday loan store robbed at gunpoint in January had one. The robber waited with the clerk for the safe to open, leading to a kidnapping charge against the suspect. The clerk quit the next day.

Walgreens stores have been targeted most often in Spokane County this year, but places such as Rite Aid and Shopko also have been hit. Last year, the Medicine Man pharmacies in Liberty Lake and North Idaho stopped keeping OxyContin in the stores.

Now their customers must give the stores about a day’s notice, and employees pick up the drug at an off-site location. No robberies have been reported at the stores since.

Customers can’t call ahead at Walgreens for OxyContin, but Elfinger said the wait isn’t long enough to be inconvenient.

Not stocking the drug isn’t an option, Elfinger said, because too many people depend on it as a pain medication.

“We’re hoping this eliminates the issue,” Elfinger said.

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