A rash of pharmacy burglaries in Jonesboro over the last month or so calls more attention to the latest trend in drug abuse — the abuse of prescription drugs obtained illegally. Arkansas has made some progress in fighting the meth epidemic so drug outlaws have turned to another source.

A rash of pharmacy burglaries in Jonesboro over the last month or so calls more attention to the latest trend in drug abuse — the abuse of prescription drugs obtained illegally. Arkansas has made some progress in fighting the meth epidemic so drug outlaws have turned to another source.

The drug of choice in five Jonesboro pharmacy burglaries since the first of December has been hydrocodone, a narcotic pain reliever marketed under such brand names as Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, Anexsia, Hycodan, Vicoprofen, Tramadol, Zydone, Tylox, Tussionex and Hycomine. It can be habit-forming and is available in pills, capsules and liquid form. The opiate drug is sometimes used in combination with an analgesic such as acetaminophen.

In the latest burglary, which occurred over the weekend, video surveillance showed the thief was in the building only 15-20 seconds, taking eight bottles of hydrocodone. The pharmacist said it was obvious he knew what he was looking for and where to find it.

The previous weekend another Jonesboro pharmacy was hit twice the same night, once about 9:30 and again about midnight. Video showed one suspect carrying a handgun the first time and two burglars the second time. An unknown quantity of hydrocodone and possibly other narcotics were taken.

On Jan. 9, two males entered another pharmacy and made off with about 5,000 hydrocodone pills. The same store had been hit Dec. 6, with as many as 15,000 pills taken. Four days earlier a nearby pharmacy was burglarized, with more than 4,000 hydrocodone pills and other medicines taken.

Police say these pills sell for at least $5-7 each on the street so you can see that the burglars figure to make quite a profit.

Pharmacy burglaries are nothing new, but they have escalated of late.

It’s not surprising, though, because the market for hydrocodone has been increasing for several years. Oxycodone, marketed under the name Oxycontin and other brands, is another strong narcotic pain reliever that is prized even more highly on the black market and therefore is targeted by thieves and burglars. One 80-milligram pill sells on the streets of Arkansas for $80.

Law enforcement authorities are pushing harder against trafficking of oxycodone and hydrocodone. U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer of Jonesboro and William Bryant, special agent in charge of the Little Rock office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, recently held a press conference in Little Rock to announce a special “Operation Big 80s” and a 65-count federal indictment against 23 people in six cases involving the prescription pain killers.

“I can tell that a conservative estimate is that we are talking about tens and tens of thousands of pills,” Thyer said. “With Operation Big 80s alone there were over 10,000 pills … This truly is a serious problem in this state.”

Thyer and Bryant also discussed other cases in which federal charges have been filed against 28 people, including 15 allegedly involved in a major scheme to distribute pain pills. That scheme apparently involved a Houston clinic owner accused of selling fraudulent prescriptions to people who were filling them in Arkansas for illegal sale.

The day of the press conference, incidentally, was the same that one Jonesboro pharmacy was burglarized twice.

Charles “Skip” Mooney Jr., a Jonesboro attorney who founded a community action group called Out of the Dark three years ago to combat drug abuse, especially among young people, also spoke during the press conference.

He pointed to previous studies showing that as early as 2006 Arkansas had the worst problem in the nation for teen-agers’ abusing prescription pain relievers. A 2008 survey by the state Office of the Drug Director indicated that by the time Arkansas high school students have reached their senior year, 22 percent have abused prescription drugs.

The abusers were most often stealing the drugs from home medicine cabinets of their parents, grandparents, other relatives and friends. A statewide drug takeback effort has reduced the availability of such drugs.

“What we have learned from this problem is not that kids are really getting into somebody’s medicine cabinet just to have a pill party. That’s what a lot of people believe … The real problem has become much bigger and broader than that,” Mooney said. “It is about an unbridled multibillion-dollar pill business that is out of control that’s been flooding our streets with pain pills for years because of the increasing number of young people who have been becoming addicted to pain pills.”

Mooney said that many young people are getting addicted to pain relievers, whatever their source, and then start moving into a cheaper but better known drug — heroin.

The rash of Jonesboro pharmacy burglaries may be the work of only a few people, but they are obviously feeding a huge problem.

• • •

Roy Ockert Jr. is editor of The Jonesboro Sun and can be reached by e-mail at royo@jonesborosun.com.