BOSTON (AP) _ Armed robbers looking for the powerful painkiller OxyContin have hit a dozen drug stores around Boston over the past three months _ a sign that the ``hillbilly heroin'' has moved into the urban Northeast.
Gunmen in baseball caps and bandannas over their faces bound a pharmacist and two clerks with duct tape on Sunday and stole the drug from Wells Drug in the Boston suburb of Woburn. The same day, another gun-wielding robber hit Brooks Pharmacy in Somerville.
The robberies come in the wake of reports last year by police, pharmacists and drug counselors of an alarming incidence of OxyContin abuse in rural areas of Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Maryland. The drug has been blamed for scores of deaths, mostly in the South.
Since then, numerous overdoses have also been reported in Philadelphia and throughout Florida.
``The problem first arose in rural areas. Now it's quickly migrated to more populous areas,'' said Charles Miller, spokesman for the National Drug Intelligence Center, part of the U.S. Justice Department. ``There's a large potential for it to spread very rapidly.''
OxyContin abuse first exploded in rural Maine and Appalachia because of the poor economy, a scarcity of cocaine and heroin and large populations of elderly people who use the drug to relieve the pain of cancer or other illnesses.
If taken properly, the synthetic morphine is released slowly into the body, but abusers crush the pills and inhale or inject the powder to get the same kind of euphoric high that heroin brings. OxyContin has been linked to at least 120 overdose deaths nationwide.
``In the last six months, we've had a huge increase in the number of losses resulting from OxyContin,'' said Chuck Young, executive director of the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Pharmacy. Employee theft has contributed to the problem, he said.
Detective Lt. James Pierce, who heads a group of Massachusetts detectives investigating the robberies around Boston, said he is worried that someone is going to get hurt.
``They're obviously getting more brazen,'' Pierce said.
Pharmacists are on edge.
Paul Hackett tells his employees never to be alone in his Weymouth pharmacy, where someone tried but failed to break in last week.
He said OxyContin should be reclassified so its theft or misuse brings stiffer penalties, and doctors need to be educated about how dangerous and addictive the drug is.
``Police on foot patrol can't touch a fraction of what's going on,'' he said.