Posts Tagged ‘oxycontin’
I have blogged in the past about the Oxycontin robbers of Spokane and vicinity – see “String of Oxycontin Robberies”, “Challenge to Robbery Suspects” and “Robberies of Pharmacies“. The legislature and local law enforcement seem to be at a loss as to how to control these crimes. The idea was floated last year of increasing the penalties for pharmacy robberies. When I called an acquaintance who works with the legislature, she told me that increased penalties were off the table. The state was broke and the prisons were full. As we know the State is closing prisons because of the budget deficit.
There was a good opinion piece in the newspaper today by Jamie Tobias Neely about some other drug related cutbacks. Neely, who teaches at Eastern Washington University, wrote here about how recovering addicts were getting kicked out of the methadone program because of cutbacks. I guess I had heard about the proposed cuts in the county’s methadone program last summer, but hadn’t heard the latest.
When Oxycontin robberies are covered in the press, you can tell by reader comments how the public feels about the subject. There is no understanding about the nature of addiction, and the comments simply cry out for longer prison terms. Some people are amused by what they perceive as the stupidity of the robbers. The fact that the addicts are desperate is lost. Last year, an Iraq War vet in Spokane robbed a store for Oxycontin. Others have robbed for methadone. Take a look at all the articles in the Spokesman-Review tagged with the term “Oxycontin“. The stories in the aggregate make clear what can be missed by just reading one story at a time. The addicts come from all walks of life, they often led productive lives prior to addiction, they often get started when the drug was prescribed, and they were so sick at the time of the robbery that no anticipated prison sentence would likely deter them.
Jamie Tobias Neely tells the rest of the story. Addicts are getting kicked out of the methadone program and on to the street due to budget cutbacks that are penny-wise and pound-foolish. Although it is possible to get a methadone prescription from a doctor, many doctors are obviously apprehensive about dealing with opiate addicts. The Spokane methadone program requires urinalysis testing, and offers counseling.
Washington State anticipates having to close prisons, and Spokane just laid off a number of prosecutors and public defenders. When the addicts are kicked out of the methadone program who will be around to handle the court cases?
Jay McCloskey, a former defender of oxycontin and its manufacturer, is being considered for the position of U.S. Attorney in Maine. Marianne Skolek and others are raising questions about this.
Before we turn to Jay McCloskey, let’s review where we are on this oxycontin problem in Washington. We talked in earlier posts about the rash of pharmacy robberies in Washington and how the company that manufactured oxycontin plead guilty to a felony and was fined over $600 million. Purdue Pharma illegally marketed oxycontin as a safer alternative to percocet and vicodin, and told doctors that oxycontin posed a lower addiction risk than those drugs. See earlier posts here, and here. Part of the way that Purdue Pharma’s executives avoided jail time was by paying former prosecutors, like Rudy Giuliani, over a million dollars to go lobby the federal prosecutor that was prosecuting Purdue Pharma. Another “consultant” for Purdue Pharma was attorney Jay P. McCloskey, who is now under consideration as a potential appointment U.S. Attorney in Maine. I heard about this story through Marianne Skolek’s column in the Salem-News.com. Marianne Skolek remembers McCloskey well. The consideration of Jay McCloskey as a prosecutor is raising eyebrows among people who remember his role in defending Purdue Pharma.
Jay McCloskey used to work as a federal prosecutor in Maine, and witnessed the ravishes of oxycontin on local residents. But later when hired as a consultant to Purdue Pharma, he defended the company. See his testimony. Jay McCloskey suggested the following strategy for defending the company: “You need to have somebody who has clout to get in the door to legitimately make your presentation” (meaning Giuliani apparently)- see story. The irony of Jay McCloskey defending Purdue Pharma as a criminal defendant wasn’t missed on the local Maine papers who quoted him as saying he had “no regrets”.
By all accounts, Purdue Pharma got off pretty easily in their plea bargain with federal prosecutors. Even the judge noted this. Shouldn’t prosecutors strive to treat defendants fairly? Defendants with better financial resources always seem to do better in this country. Shouldn’t Jay McCloskey have to explain his position to the people of Maine?
How much worse is the problem of Oxycontin and pharmacy robberies going to get? There was an opinion piece in the Seattle Times earlier this month by Elizabeth M. Economou on the subject of pharmacy robberies. The opinion piece was personal in that Elizabeth Economou’s husband is a pharmacist and was the victim of a robbery. But she also called on the state legislature to increase the penalties for such pharmacy robberies. The position is different from the arguments that I have made (here and here) insofar as I believe that the robberies are the result of the inherent addictive properties of Oxycontin, and that more needs to be done in regulating the manufacturing and marketing of such drugs. But while I have seen the ravishes of addiction daily in my practice as a criminal defense attorney, pharmacists such as Economou’s husband see it from a different perspective, i.e. looking down the barrel of a gun.
Elizabeth Economou explains: “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.” She writes that he returned from work early and her husband explained “I got held up — he wanted Oxycontin.”
It may seem like Ms. Economou is being melodramatic with her war analogy, but she is not. Such stories are in the newspaper everyday. The situation has gotten near the boiling point, and I am worried that any day gunfire will erupt in one of these incidents. On November 19th, the Spokesman-Review reported in a story that a pharmacy employee tackled a man with a gun who tried to rob the store of its Oxycontin. The employee was still trying to wrestle the gun away from the suspect when the police arrived. The story did not make the front page of the Spokesman because such stories are growing commonplace.
After I read Elizabeth Economou’s suggestion that the legislature should increase the penalties for such robberies, I emailed an attorney I knew who works with the state legislature. No such penalty increases were being considered. There was no room in the budget. And it is not because Economou’s was the only one to suggest the idea. The elected prosecuting attorney for King County, Dan Satterberg made the same request. The state is simply broke and can’t afford the cost of the increase prison sentences.
While it is debatable whether increased prison sentences would deter desperate addicts, one thing is sure. The debate in the legislature would have provided an excellent opportunity to force our leaders to consider the growing problem. Too many of our leaders are ignoring the issue of Oxycontin and pharmacy robberies.
The expense of high quality video surveillance equipment has plummeted, and many businesses are installing sophisticated systems into their businesses. This is posing a challenge to robbery and burglary suspects. It seems like you cannot watch the news or go online without seeing photos or video footage of these guys caught in the act.
But burglary and robbery suspects are finding new ways to cover their faces when they are on the job. I saw this photo to the left in the Olympian online yesterday that the police released with the hope of identifying him. For the latest Eastern Washington crime/court news, I visit the blog Sirens & Gavels. The stories in this blog by Meghann Cuniff usually include surveillance photos. I read the Spokesman-Review in print, but I check their online site for the audio/video content.
I follow all the local oxycontin robberies, and have blogged about this in the past, see earlier post. The pattern that many of these robbers fit, is to try to cover as much of their face as possible without it seeming too suspicious. Obviously if a person walks into a pharmacy or business with a bandanna over their face then that will alert everyone as to their intentions. In my experience as a criminal defense attorney, some suspects keep these robberies as low-key as possible, simply presenting their demand to the counter in the form of a note. In Meghann Cuniff’s blog today, she posted surveillance footage of a failed armed robbery attempt by a man who allegedly walked into a pharmacy in Hayden with a gun to attempt to get oxycontin. The suspect left empty-handed because the pharmacy avoids keeping it in stock due to the rash of such robberies. Notice the suspect’s mannerisms as he walks into the store. He clearly is aware of the presence of the security camera, and would have likely visited the store in advance to observe the placement. The suspect casually covers his face with his hand, as if to suppress a cough, but drops his hand down after he passes the camera. His head is covered with a hood and hat.
Such surveillance videos pose a challenge to the investigator and attorneys handling such cases. The equipment is difficult to operate, and often times a store owner is not aware of how to duplicate the recording for the police. In metropolitan areas, specialized robbery or major crimes detectives are well practiced at handling such equipment, but in our more rural counties deputy sheriffs often struggle. As a defense attorney, I have dealt with armed robbery allegations cases where the video was replayed by the police to see, but was never copied for court or made available to the jury. Often times, when a copy is made the file is “compressed” reducing the quality of the video footage. “Compression” is the process by which a larger data file is reduced in size to more easily fit on a disk or flash drive. Video quality varies from camera to camera, but unlike on TV, it is rare that the video can be significantly enhanced. When I defended an armed robbery allegation in Okanogan County, I worked with an expert who used Photoflair to try to enhance the image, but it was not very successful. Photoflair has been used in a lot of high profile cases, and can be helpful, but it is not like on CSI. In the future, the police will not necessarily need to post the photo of a robbery suspect to solve the crime. Face recognition software already exists and came on my MacBook when I bought it. When I add photographs from my camera to my computer, the program recognizes the subjects of the photos and tags the photos accordingly. It is possible that someday the police could match a photo of a robbery suspect with other photographs the suspect has posted on social networking sites.
Having defended such cases and worked with oxycontin addicts, I grow frustrated with the manufacturer of oxycontin, Purdue Pharma. As I wrote in an earlier post, pharmaceutical company Purdue-Pharma invented and mass-marketed oxycontin. The company agreed that it committed a felony when it marketed oxycontin and hid how unsafe it was. The company faced 600 million in fines after it plead guilty, but the executives never went to jail. The company encouraged doctors to prescribe it not just to dying cancer patients, but to people with even moderate pain. Many addicts were thus created. According to a story in the New York Times, “…Purdue Pharma contended that OxyContin, because of its time-release formulation, posed a lower threat of abuse and addiction to patients than do traditional, shorter-acting painkillers like Percocet or Vicodin.” Less addictive then vicodin (i.e. hydrocodone)? Now that really makes me chuckle. Remember the above video of the robbery suspect who tried to rob the pharmacy but they did not stock oxycontin? He left empty handed. He didn’t ask for percocet or vicodin as an alternative. He knows there is no substitute or no pharmacy drug like oxycontin. It’s only equivalent is heroin.
The DEA has cut back on prescriptions for oxycontin, but you really can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Addicts will rob pharmacies rather then suffer the agony of withdrawal. Further steps are needed to limit oxycontin’s use.
I read in last Sunday’s Spokesman-Review of the steps many pharmacies were taking to stop oxycontin robberies. Then three days later, I read about another Spokane oxycontin robbery. For those of you haven’t followed the news, the precise problem is addicts going into pharmacies with a weapon demanding oxycontin pills. Sometimes, a robber merely pretends to have a weapon or simply writes a threatening note. According to news reports, Washington State leads the nation in oxycontin robberies. A typical oxycontin robbery job goes something as described in this police wanted photograph.
I am sure this is not fun for the store employees. Prior to oxycontin coming on the market, I don’t really remember ever hearing too often about pharmacy robberies. There just is something about oxycontin pills that drives the addicts crazy in a way that morphine or percocet does not do. The Walgreens in Spokane made national news last week when they announced the problem of oxycontin robberies was so bad in Washington that they were placing special time-delay safes in all stores. The safes take several minutes to open – the idea being that a robber is not going to stick around for ten minutes or so. I wonder about this idea. What pharmacy clerk really wants to break the news to a drug-crazed armed robber that they have to wait ten minutes? If I were a clerk I would rather just have a bottle handy right there by the counter I could toss in a hurry. Drug-crazed robbers are dangerous, and Seattle robbery Detective Mike Magan explained: “I’ve always said the person who commits pharmacy robberies for oxycontin is the most dangerous person you’ll come up against…”. To combat oxycontin robberies, the Seattle police department provided a tracking device to a pharmacy to put in with the oxycontin should a robbery occur. (See story.) The man they caught was suspected of committing 16 pharmacy robberies.
In response to such robberies, the elected prosecutor from King County, Dan Satterberg, is pushing the state legislature to increase the penalties for these oxycontin robberies. The Washington Retailers Association is also supporting this. I won’t argue against such ideas, but I would encourage our legislatures to remember how we got into this mess in the first place.
How about the pharmaceutical company Purdue-Pharma that invented and mass-marketed oxycontin? The company agreed that it committed a felony when it marketed oxycontin and hid how unsafe it was. The company faced 600 million in fines after it plead guilty, but how come the executives never went to jail? (See news reports). According to a story in the New York Times, “…Purdue Pharma contended that OxyContin, because of its time-release formulation, posed a lower threat of abuse and addiction to patients than do traditional, shorter-acting painkillers like Percocet or Vicodin.” Lower threat then Vicodin? This false claim by Purdue Pharma was the center of their aggressive marketing campaign. Just a few years after the drug’s introduction in 1996, annual sales reached $1 billion. According to the above mentioned article, “Purdue Pharma heavily promoted OxyContin to doctors like general practitioners, who had often had little training in the treatment of serious pain or in recognizing signs of drug abuse in patients.” The story continues: “…both experienced drug abusers and novices, including teenagers, soon discovered that chewing an OxyContin tablet or crushing one and then snorting the powder or injecting it with a needle produced a high as powerful as heroin. By 2000, parts of the United States, particularly rural areas, began to see skyrocketing rates of addiction and crime related to use of the drug.” Although drug companies often can’t predict the consequences of their products, Purdue Pharma had to admit that they deliberately concealed the harmful effects of its drug.
Although the company had to pay $600 million in fines, the profits from the sale of oxycontin were about four times that much. Purdue Pharma had a lot of money to hire lawyers, and when they were being investigated they hired Rudy Guilliani to try to use his influence to get the DEA to back off. Guilliani accepted several million dollars for this service. See story. Guilliani went to see the local Virginia prosecutor that was going after Purdue Pharma, and the local prosecutor ultimately agreed that the three executives would not have to do jail time. See story. So while I am not really happy that drug addled nitwits are robbing our state’s pharmacies, I am troubled by the unfairness of a system that allowed the executives who created this mess to get off without any jail time. The judge who handled the sentencing of the executives felt the same way. He explained that the the lack of jail time for the executives was the “most difficult” part of accepting the plea deal. Protesters outside the court house were angry that the executives were getting off so lightly. Many protesters had lost loved ones to accidental overdoses of the drug.
You can see why the family members of people hurt by oxycontin would be upset by the court system.
What responsibility does Purdue Pharma have as to all the oxycontin pharmacy robberies in this State? Not much apparently. According to the Spokesman-Review last week, the company that has made 2.8 billion on this drug was offering just a measly $1,000 reward for the latest robbery.
You really have to wonder about the way drug companies market these prescriptions. The latest problem is the practice of drug companies writing articles about how great their latest drugs are and then finding a doctor to submit the article to a publication. The article then makes no mention of the fact that the article was not really written by the particular physician. With oxycontin, Purdue Pharma would market oxycontin by getting in good with doctors with free trips. Purdue Pharma would pay for the transportation and hotel costs for hundreds of doctors to attend weekend seminars in spots like Florida to discuss pain management. Doctors were then recruited and paid to speak to other doctors at some of the 7,000 ”pain management” seminars that Purdue sponsored around the country. The seminars taught the importance of aggressively treating pain with the powerful drugs made by Purdue Pharma.
I find it highly annoying that all the discussion of these oxycontin robberies ignores how we got into this oxycontin disaster to begin with. As seen in the wanted poster above, going after a drug addict in a hat and hooded sweatshirt is pretty easy. They look guilty, and you can score political points by being “tough on crime”. All of the police detectives, prosecutors, politicians, defense lawyers, legislators, probation officers and judges of Washington State coping with this problem are really just janitors cleaning up a mess left by powerful forces of money and power and influence back East.