British Columbia

Time-delay safes linked to steep drop in robberies from B.C. pharmacies

Data on drugs reported missing to Health Canada show that losses to armed robbery, break and enter and theft in B.C. dropped from about 150,000 units in 2015 to just 4,400 in 2016.

Drugs like fentanyl and oxycodone must be kept in safes that open on 5-minute delay

A reported 166,000 oxycodone tablets went missing from a Shoppers Drug Mart in Surrey in April 2016. (The Associated Press/Patrick Sison)

A dramatic drop in reported robberies of controlled drugs from B.C. drug stores matches up with the installation of time-delay safes, according to the provincial regulator for pharmacists.

Data on drugs reported missing to Health Canada shows losses to armed robbery, break and enter and theft in B.C. dropped from about 150,000 units in 2015 to just 4,400 in 2016.

Those numbers are in line with what Vancouver police have seen — a drop from 36 drug store robberies in 2013/2014 to just two in 2016/2017.

They also concur with what Bob Nakagawa has observed as registrar of the College of Pharmacists of B.C. Since 2015, the college has required that all pharmacies keep Schedule IA drugs in a safe with a timer that only allows it to open after a five-minute wait. That includes opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone and hydromorphone.

"We saw a plummeting of the number of robberies, armed robberies, in the province. We rarely hear of one these days, so we view it as a huge success," Nakagawa said.

Thousands of missing pills

About 200,000 pills are reported missing from B.C. pharmacies every year, and the numbers have been rising since 2012.

In the midst of an overdose crisis, most of the missing drugs are opioids.

"The natural concern is that they are ending up on the street and they are being used in ways that aren't ideal, and they are fuelling the illegitimate drug trade," Nakagawa said.

Between January 2012 and September 2017, B.C. saw the biggest mass drug disappearance in the entire country.

That was in April 2016, when 166,000 oxycodone tablets and smaller amounts of other drugs went missing from a Shoppers Drug Mart in Surrey. The college says it happened because of poor inventory management, but that the drugs were likely "illegally diverted,"

'Trauma' of armed robberies

What was especially concerning for the regulator, though, was a spike in armed robberies in 2014 and 2015. Some weeks, there would be three or four reported, Nakagawa said.

"For us, that was very disconcerting, not only for the trauma that causes for people working in the pharmacy ... but also for the patients that happened to be there," he said.

College of Pharmacists of B.C. registrar Bob Nakagawa says the province was seeing three or four robberies some weeks in 2014 and 2015. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

And so the college looked south to the U.S., where Walgreens was reporting a big decline in robberies after bringing in time-delay safes. Here in Canada, Safeway was also using the devices and reporting success.

But before demanding that every pharmacy in the province follow suit, the college conducted a bit of an experiment. With some help from police, the college's DrugSafeBC program began spreading the word that the time-delay safes were already in place everywhere.

"We saw it as creating a little bit of a herd immunity," Nakagawa said. "Once the word got out through social media and through word of mouth and just having the signs up, they stopped robbing pharmacies."

45-second crimes

When the idea was first raised, there was some concern that the time delay would put drug store employees in danger from frustrated robbers.

But that doesn't seem to be the case.

"What I'm told is that most robbers take about 45 seconds — they're very fast — and they would not want to wait," Nakagawa said.

Since making time-delay safes mandatory in 2015, the college has brought in a raft of new security measures meant to protect drug stores from theft.

All pharmacies now require security cameras that are checked daily, physical barriers protecting prescription drugs, monitored alarm systems and motion sensors.

With files from Tara Carman, Joan Marshall and Zahra Premji

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