Rash of armed robberies has pharmacy industry worried

A recent spate of armed robberies at drugstores on the Avalon Peninsula has those in the industry concerned, and scrambling to come up with a solution.

Pharmacists' Association says robberies are a 'growing public safety issue'

Tom Kennedy, whose family used to own the pharmacy that was robbed last Wednesday, says the use of crystal meth and crack cocaine is increasing. (CBC)

A rash of armed robberies at pharmacies on the Avalon Peninsula last week has people in the industry worried. Pharmacy owners are bracing for more, but are also scrambling to come up with a solution.

The incidents, all involving what are believed to be handguns, started a week ago, and targeted different stores in St. John's and surrounding communities. 

Stephen Reid, executive director of the Pharmacists' Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, said the robberies are a growing public safety issue.

"This is not a pharmacy issue, or a pharmacists' issue — this is something about the security of everyone that works inside these pharmacies, the pharmacy technicians, the pharmacists themselves, the patients that come in there to look for advice from their local and community pharmacists," said Reid.

Meeting planned with police

Reid said the dilemma is not with security at the drug stores themselves, but rather what he sees as a growing addiction problem.

"If somebody needs to fuel their addiction, they are not going to be dissuaded by a security guard in a pharmacy. They're going to be scoping out the pharmacy ... where are its weakest points and how to get in there."

Reid will be meeting with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's drug team on Tuesday to discuss a further plan of action.

The latest string of robberies happened Aug. 19 when two men held up the Prescription Shoppe in Churchill Square. After demanding narcotics, the men fled on foot with prescription medications.

No one was injured, but police have concerns that the stolen drugs will end up on the street.

On Wednesday night, Kennedy's PharmaChoice in Bay Bulls was held up. The lone male suspect used what appeared to be a handgun, getting away with a large quantity of prescription pills.

The workers were so traumatized from what unfolded that night, they had to take time off work.

The third incident occurred Thursday night, as two men attempted to rob Villa Nova Pharmacy in Conception Bay South. The suspects, who had demanded prescription medications, left the pharmacy empty-handed as they were confronted by an on-duty employee.

A firearm and a hammer were brought into the store, and the employee suffered minor injuries from the incident.

'It's scary'

Tom Kennedy, whose family used to own the drug store that was robbed in Bay Bulls, has dealt with similar situations a number of times.

"You have no idea of the sensibilities of these people coming in to do this — if they're on drugs at the time, and how far they're willing to go to do something. It's scary," Kennedy said.

"I felt really bad for the staff. I mean, for some of these staff members it's the second time going through it. I don't think people realize how long that affects you after the fact."

Kennedy said owners can only do so much to protect their employees and their businesses.

"We stopped carrying narcotics at one point. We reduced our hours. We increased staff at certain times of the day. It doesn't seem to matter. These people just have it in their mind that if they're going to do something, they're just going to do it."

Kennedy fears the situation will get worse.

"Crack cocaine is increasing, crystal meth is increasing. Those are extremely addictive drugs — and people will do anything to make sure that they get them."

Despite the rash of recent robberies, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary denies there's a connection with a new proliferation of such drugs.

Const. Talia Murphy told CBC News that the force does not have information suggesting that crystal meth use has increased.

With files from Curtis Rumbolt and Ariana Kelland