WASHINGTON – The $75 million heist at a pharmaceutical warehouse in Connecticut this week was just the most audacious example of a growing phenomenon: Thieves are stealing large quantities of prescription drugs for resale on the black market.
Pharmaceutical heists in the U.S. have quadrupled since 2006, a coalition of industry and law enforcement estimates. And experts say the reasons include spotty security and high drug prices that can make such thefts extremely lucrative.
While some stolen pills wind up overseas, others show up on pharmacy shelves in the U.S. with fake labels and lot numbers.
The theft from an Eli Lilly & Co. warehouse early Sunday is the largest of its kind on record and attests to the growing sophistication of those who pull off such crimes.
Authorities say the thieves cut a hole in the roof, lowered themselves into the building on ropes, disabled the alarm system and stole enough drugs to fill a tractor-trailer. The stolen pharmaceuticals included best-selling antidepressants Prozac and Cymbalta.
“The people that target the pharmaceutical industry are an organized criminal element,” said Charles Forsaith, director of supply chain security for drugmaker Purdue Pharma. “This isn’t a couple of guys walking by a warehouse and saying, `I’m going to hit that place.’ ”
Forsaith heads a coalition of drug companies, distributors and law enforcement officials who have been working to prevent such thefts since 2006.
In the past four years, reported thefts of prescription drug shipments have quadrupled from 11 to 46, according to FreightWatch International, a security firm. Last year, roughly $184 million in pharmaceuticals were stolen in the U.S., up from $96.6 million the year before. Most of the heists involve cargo stolen from trucks or cargo containers, though company warehouses have also been hit.
Widely abused drugs like morphine and codeine are often peddled on the street, but federal officials say drugs like those stolen from Lilly are often sold back to medical suppliers.
Major drugstore chains say they purchase pharmaceuticals only from manufacturers or wholesalers that certify the source of their product.
But with layers of drug wholesalers, distributors and online pharmacy businesses across the U.S., experts say stolen prescription drugs can easily be resold.
“Some of these thieves completely redo labels, and they pass muster if no one’s looking too closely,” said Food and Drug Administration spokesman Tom Gasparoli.
The danger to the public comes if the thieves decide to hold onto the product until it expires and becomes unsafe.
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