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Originally published November 10, 2009 at 3:55 PM | Page modified November 10, 2009 at 6:01 PM

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Guest columnist

On the front lines of the war on drugs at the pharmacy

Dozens of Washington state pharmacies have been robbed as criminals seek access to prescription drugs they can sell on the streets. Guest columnist Elizabeth M. Economou writes that, despite the peril pharmacy staff face, penalties remain too lenient.

Special to The Times

I DIDN'T marry a military man, but some days it sure feels that way.

Instead of combat boots and olive-hued fatigues, my husband sports a crisp white lab coat while valiantly assuming his place on the front lines of the insidious war for prescription drugs.

"What're you doing home so early?" I asked my pharmacist spouse as we bumped into each other in the hallway of our old brick apartment building. "I got held up — he wanted OxyContin," said my husband of the masked gunmen.

A few months earlier, we'd left Manhattan's Upper East Side neighborhood and relocated to Seattle for a less frenetic way of life. But on that fateful day, some two years ago, I began to realize the city I left nearly a decade ago had morphed into a place I no longer recognized. And I couldn't help but note the irony: that in 20 years of practicing pharmacy in New York City, my newly betrothed had never come face to face with an armed suspect on a tear for a big score of prescription pain meds, like the wildly popular OxyContin, a Schedule II narcotic and opiate.

Even more worrisome is the ominous reality that as long as he remains in his mortar-and-pestle profession — and in retail — he'll always be a prime target.

A sobering reflection of just how dire things have gotten is that national drug retailer Walgreens recently went ahead and installed time-delay safes in all of its stores in our state — and only in Washington state — in an effort to limit instant access to OxyContin.

In the first seven months of this year, Washington state logged 59 pharmacy robberies, according to the local office of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Nearly 90 percent were opiate-related.

But despite the uptick in robbery thefts, sentencing laws remain lenient. If caught, perpetrators get three months behind bars for a first offense, according to the King County Prosecutor's Office.

Bandits, meanwhile, have little incentive to abdicate their rapacious ways, especially when "note-jobs" — where the perpetrator hands a pharmacy employee a note or verbally demands narcotics without seemingly having a gun — are considered second-degree robbery under state law and because a single vial of OxyContin — or hillbilly heroin, as it is commonly called — can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market.

In an effort to level the playing field, one pharmacist I know — the owner of a mom-and-pop drugstore in Crown Hill — packs heat to work with him everyday, and he's not afraid to pull the trigger in order to protect himself, co-workers and customers. Other pharmacists have either fled or are leaving the profession.

But, like an obedient foot soldier, my dedicated husband assumes his place in the trenches without any fanfare, accepting the challenges that are redefining not only his career, but his calling.

Two weeks ago, a drugstore theft in Wallingford was eerily reminiscent of the time when my husband — a newcomer to Seattle at the time — was held up. In classic pharmacy-robbery form, the suspect — while demanding OxyContin — gestured he had a gun in his pocket.

Hopefully, our elected officials will soon wake up to the daunting realization that the rising tide of opiate-related pharmacy robberies — locally and statewide — is a huge problem. And just maybe it's time to start talking about other serious issues instead of nauseating us with more talk about the viaduct, recycling and why biking should trump driving.

Meanwhile, I'm grateful — beyond words — that my husband hasn't been stabbed or shot at, but I wonder how it'll all shake out.

On some days, especially when he works nights, like a military wife, I can't help but think the worst — that he may not come home at all.

Elizabeth M. Economou is a writer living in Seattle.

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