The brazen afternoon robbery of a Citrus Heights Rite Aid resulting in the death of an 87-year-old woman brought attention to a growing problem: the rising rate of pharmacy thefts.
In the northeast Sacramento County suburb alone, the number of pharmacy robberies is up to eight in 2017 from two in 2016.
Over the last two years, pharmacy robberies in California are up 163 percent, according to numbers complied by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
In 2015, the agency recorded 90 incidents. The number climbed to 154 in 2016. Through Nov. 17, some 237 had been reported to the DEA.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“To see that kind of spike, it is alarming,” said Special Agent Casey Reittig, a spokeswoman for the DEA. She declined to speculate why, but suggested drug users may have become more brazen in response to rule changes tightening access to opioids.
Robbers are after opioids and cough syrup ingredients, said Sgt. Shaun Hampton, spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. While countywide statistics were not available Thursday, Hampton said he believes Sacramento County is experiencing an uptick.
The opioid epidemic has been well documented, with about 33,000 Americans dying in 2015 from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The powerful pain-relieving drugs carry significant addiction risks.
Meanwhile, Hampton said large bottles containing promethazine with the opioid codeine – ingredients in prescription cough syrup – can go for as much as $400 on the street. Smaller bottles sell for $50 to $100.
The powerful cough suppressants have been abused for years. Mixed with alcohol, they are used to create an intoxicating mix commonly called “purple drank,” “sizzurp” or “lean.” Consumption of purple drank has been popularized in rap music for years.
The head of the California Pharmacists Association added that a move to increase public safety – restricting cough syrup access to reduce abuse of the drug – may also have inadvertently put more pharmacists at risk.
In 2011, the state Legislature added dextromethorphan to the list of over-the-counter drugs with an 18-and-over age requirement – moving them behind the counter. Advocates for Senate Bill 514, including an array of health and public safety organizations, said teens were stealing cough syrup from drug store shelves and taking doses 8 to 20 times the recommended amount to get high. Many teens thought the drug was less harmful because it involved an over-the-counter cough syrup instead of a prescription drug.
While the legislation stopped the rampant pickpocketing of cough syrup, “now we have active robberies,” Roth said. “It kind of cuts both ways.”
Roth said those robbing pharmacies take cough syrups containing promethazine or dextromethorphan, which is often referred to as DMX.
“My sense is that they are seeking any and all,” Roth said.
Roth said the association continues to support the cough syrup law as a way to reduce the abuse of such products. The association advises members to increase security measures to deter thefts. If robbed, Roth said, pharmacists are advised not to resist.
Rite Aid customer Marilyn Stribley died as a result of the injuries she suffered when she was knocked down Nov. 27 by a suspect running from the store on the 6600 block of Auburn Boulevard. Video of the fatal incident has been widely circulated in the media.
Citrus Heights police announced Friday they had arrested Kimani Randolph, 21, of Sacramento on suspicion of robbery and violating probation. He was located and arrested without incident Thursday in Las Vegas and is scheduled to be extradited to Sacramento next week. He was on probation for being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
Police are still trying to identify the two other suspects, previously described as black men between ages 18 and 20. Police said the men had jumped over the pharmacy counter and demanded prescription drugs. Store employees handed over the drugs.
Rite Aid Corp. has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the robbers.
Hampton said there was no evidence to suggest a robbery of a Carmichael Rite Aid five days later was connected. He said agencies are sharing information.