Nfld. & Labrador

Where do the drugs go? N.L. has country's highest rates of drug losses from pharmacies

Deadly painkillers are most likely to go missing, and often end up on the street.

Deadly painkiller oxycodone most likely to go missing

A stolen backhoe was used to get into the pharmacy at the Dominion store on Blackmarsh Road on Jan. 1. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The names were fake. The patient profiles were too.

The drugs pilfered by a St. John's pharmacy technician, however — 100,000 narcotic pills — were real.

While working at a Shoppers Drug Mart, the mother from Paradise created 30 fake patient profiles in the pharmacy's computer system.

She fabricated 490 prescription requests to steal $33,645 over three years, succumbing to an opioid addiction that began while experimenting with Percocet years before.

Those details are laid out in court documents obtained by CBC News.

And the numbers are included in Health Canada statistics that reveal Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest rates of reported losses per pharmacy in the country.

Armed robberies top list

Health Canada began inspecting pharmacies in 2015 to make sure drug loss reporting rules are being followed. Security-related problems were the most common violations noted by inspectors in 2016-17, according to the program's annual report.

Every time controlled drugs go missing from a pharmacy, hospital, transport company, or other facility, details about the loss must be reported to Health Canada within 10 days.

Newfoundland and Labrador Staff Sgt. Stephen Conohan is in charge of criminal intelligence under the umbrella of federal serious and organized crime. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

CBC News obtained all loss reports across Canada between Jan. 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2017, through an access-to-information request. Over that time period, there were 142,420 individual reports filed with Health Canada.

Between those same dates in this province, almost 450,000 units (capsules, tablets, patches, packages and suppositories) were reported missing.

That data shows that armed robberies and break-ins account for the majority of drug losses in this province, with the worst year being 2016, when almost 100,000 units were stolen.

Addiction doesn't dry up with the economy

The highly addictive opioid oxycodone topped the list of drugs that disappeared from pharmacies every year since Health Canada began collecting data, and is twice as likely to go missing over any other opioid. 

The statistics do not come as a shock to RCMP Staff Sgt. Stephen Conohan.

"It's very easy for someone who does a pharmacy armed robbery or break-in to liquidate their ill-gotten goods on the street," said Conohan, who heads up criminal intelligence in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"So, if they get 1,500 Oxycontin pills that can be disseminated very, very quickly on the streets here."

According to the RCMP, the current street value of oxycodone is $1 per milligram. The pills can range anywhere from 10 to 80 mg per pill. 

Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest rates of reported drug losses per pharmacy in the country. (CBC News Graphics)

Neither the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary or RCMP could provide the exact number of armed robberies where pharmacies were in the target.

"There's always been a steady abuse of prescription drugs and that's grown as the abuser population has grown," Conohan said.

He added that while an oil-rich economy helped bolster the drug trade, any addiction remained the same or worse as prosperity dwindled.

"Unfortunately, the ill-gotten gains of prosperity will remain behind the scenes … even if industry leaves."

Pharmacists who self prescribe

But the biggest losses came at the hands of employees themselves.

Health Canada numbers show that in one case 55,400 oxycodone tablets were pilfered by an employee in 2016. 

Other powerful painkillers such as Demerol and Tylenol 4s also topped the list.

While the data does not include the name of the pharmacy or the region in which the theft occurred, the pharmacy board does keep its own data. 

Margot Priddle is the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Board registrar. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

A tribunal hearing of the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Board in 2015 revealed that the former pharmacist-in-charge at Parkside Pharmacy in St. John's was fuelling his own addiction through his work.

David Rogers stole narcotics and controlled drugs over two years "due to his struggle with substance abuse and addiction."

Rogers voluntarily gave up his certificate of registration as a pharmacist, and "generally took responsibility for his actions."

Court documents show Rogers stole in excess of 17,000 pills with the replacement value of the medication being $4,900. However, the street value would be much higher.

2 employees fired from same Shoppers Drug Mart

Two years later, the board held a hearing about Shoppers Drug Mart Topsail Road pharmacist Douglas Walsh.

Between 2008 and 2015 he created 14 false patient profiles to obtain 629 false prescriptions for medications. 

"The medications he obtained in this manner were all paid for and were for personal use. There is no indication that any of the medications were distributed to anyone other than the respondent," a board decision noted. 

At that same pharmacy, a 34-year-old technician used the names of five actual physicians who she says were well-known for writing narcotic prescriptions, court documents show.

"She advised she had a system for creating the patient's account and prescription requests, then 'zeroing out' the balance owing, so that the cash balanced out and there was no discrepancy in the till," an agreed statement of facts from October said. 

She was confronted by a security guard at the pharmacy and was fired.

Are pharmacists doing enough?

Despite those cases, the registrar of the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmacy Board said pharmacists take their roles of keeping harmful drugs from the streets very seriously.

"Even with the best policies and procedures in place, things can go wrong," Margot Priddle said of recent pilferage cases.

"Health-care providers are humans and are subject to all health issues, mentally and physically, as anyone else in our society."

Both Conohan and Priddle agree that drug diversion is a problem — like opioid addiction itself — that sweeps beyond big city boundaries.

Priddle didn't delve into the details of what security measures pharmacies have in place, for fear of tipping off drug-seeking thieves.

But she said the pharmacy board has policies and procedures in place to keep drugs out of the wrong hands.

"We do need to have medications for the right reason, for the right people to take them, for appropriate health issues that they have. So it's a balancing act."

Every year, hundreds of thousands of controlled drugs (mostly opioids) that were supposed to end up on pharmacy shelves are reported missing to Health Canada — and that number is on the rise. Vik Adhopia explains what might be going on. 1:48

Police also work hand-in-hand with the board.

"We monitor some risky behaviour, if there are ways we can mitigate that by the storage some of these things, [store] hours ... and some pharmacies — some of the smaller pharmacies — don't carry specific drugs as well," Staff Sgt. Conohan said.

As for this province's high numbers, Priddle said she wasn't aware of Newfoundland and Labrador's contrast to other provinces.

She said the current year is tracking on pace with 2017.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

With files from Tara Carman and Vik Adhopia

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