NEW YORK — The Drug Enforcement Administration is working through a backlog of Baltimore pharmacy robberies to identify and arrest looters who authorities say stole more than 300,000 doses of prescription pills.
During the civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray after his fatal spinal injury in police custody, rioters broke into no less than 27 pharmacies across Baltimore, raiding safes and smashing storage cabinets to get their hands on Percocet, oxycodone and other controlled pharmaceuticals.
This case of mass-drug theft is unusual for the DEA, Special Agent Todd Edwards told TheBlaze.
“We usually deal with dismantling and disrupting drug trafficking organizations,” Edwards explained, “a lot of the looting is targets of opportunity.”
Edwards said that if a select few gangs or large dealers were holding all of the stolen pills and selling from one location, the street price would likely drop. Yet the price of prescription opiates has remained steady at about $30 for one 30-milligram pill — enough to get a less-hardened user high several times — raising the question: Where did the drugs go?
A steady price means the supply of pills likely spread throughout the city to small-time dealers as well as different gangs and distributors. More than two months have passed, during which Edwards said the city has managed to recover a small amount of the pills while executing a warrant – but no arrests have been made in connection with the stolen prescriptions. Alleged drug deals have been occurring in the open and an illegal prescription trade has blossomed in the Lexington Market area, CNN reported last month. Dealers are aware of DEA presence, posting lookouts and operating with confidence.
That means that criminals are making money and when they cash out, they’re likely to spend it in different places.
“They just might go blow it, they might spend it on a car, they might spend it going to Vegas,” Edwards said. But he also warned that gangs involved with the pharmacy theft would be more frugal and re-invest their profit, mainly in heroin.
“They’re gonna use that money to get more drugs and just keep the cycle going. Because that’s their business,” he said.
The stolen pharmaceuticals are acting as a criminal stimulus package in a city already plagued by serious heroin problems. Roughly 60,000 people – or 1 in 10 – are addicted to the drug, according to the Baltimore Department of Health. With that many users living in the city, there is already a lucrative market for opiates.
Edwards explained the path of painkiller abuse that breeds heroin addiction.
“They try and buy them on the street because their doctor won’t give them to them anymore, or they doctor shop and they can’t find a doctor who’s going to fill a prescription," he said. “When they can’t get the money to do that, they turn around and they switch to heroin, because heroin is cheaper.”
One dose of heroin is roughly one-third the price of one dose of prescription opiates. More pharmaceutical drug abusers now can lead to more heroin addicts feeding gang drug trade in the future.
Beyond just increasing the addicted population, the influx of pills into the drug market is inflaming tensions between gangs and leading to violence. New territory has opened up in the wake of April’s civil unrest: with more than 200 businesses destroyed and other structures abandoned, drug dealers have new places to set up shop without worrying about residents or business owners getting in the way. This has set the stage for aggressive gang expansion and turf wars.
Baltimore’s murder rate shot up, making May the deadliest month in 40 years, with 43 reported homicides. Police say that this flood of prescription drugs onto the market is partly to blame. The rest can be attributed to a diminished police presence, according to Baltimore community leaders.
As the violent crime rate went up, the arrest rate dropped. In early May, when six police officers were indicted in Gray’s death, commanders made a significant change in policy: The number of officers required in each cruiser was doubled – effectively halving police visibility – according to Baltimore City Councilman Nick J. Mosby. Officers also worry about being prosecuted for what they do on the job and are stepping back, police union officials said.
Despite the difficulty of this unique situation, the DEA says it is making progress. Owners of the ransacked pharmacies saved security video, pictures, and evidence left behind by the looters, the Baltimore Sun reported. Reclaiming the stolen goods may seem to be just a matter of combing through the evidence, but the process is far more difficult.
People pray in front of Baltimore City Hall, May 3, 2015 calling for peace following widespread riots after 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)
“Once we identify the people that went in, then you have to try and figure out who they are and build a case against them,” Edwards said.
The DEA says it has identified some of the suspected thieves and is working with the public to track them down. Authorities have released photos of the alleged looters in the hopes that they will be recognized.
According to Edwards, Baltimore residents have been helpful with providing tips and information so far and it will take a community effort to restore the peace: “We live in a different time now and we all have to work together and we have to realize that we’re all in this together. Hopefully they can help us out.”