When I was in graduate school I worked as a pharmacy tech, in an unnamed chain establishment in an anonymous city that happened to be located in one of said city’s less illustrious neighborhoods. This was also at the time of the media/moral panic surrounding Oxycontin, in which the OC was portrayed as a magic potion that not only cured your pain, but got you higher than any off-the-street drug ever could. Because of the defective formulation of the drug, it was easily abused and became even more addictive than its short-acting counterparts. For the record, it’s just a time-release form of oxycodone, a narcotic painkiller that’s been available as Percocet (with Tylenol) or Percodan (with aspirin), for decades. A lot of the local pharmacies quit selling Oxycontin during that time due to robberies, so by default we were the go-to guys for all kinds of addicts, as well as patients who were prescribed Oxycontin for legitimate reasons.
Yes, you read that right: legitimate reasons DID exist. There were good people who genuinely suffered from conditions that required serious round-the-clock pain relief. For these people (suffering from AIDs, cancer, spinal damage, decades of work- or sports-related injuries, etc.) Oxycontin and similar extended-release drugs were a godsend. They gave steady relief throughout the day and did not require people to live their lives in every four hours increments that usually included only about one tolerable hour. Once the Oxycontin panic found its way into the media, however, legit patients ended up getting treated with the contempt reserved for that homeless person who squeegees your windshield and then stands in front of your car until you give him a buck. Not infrequently, they ended up switching to far less effective drugs to avoid the stigma, or ordering the drugs on the thriving 90s internet gray market, and in at least one case I knew of, a family tried to send their 64-year-old cancer-stricken mother to rehab because they didn’t want her being one of those Oxy addicts.”
Yes, there were a fair share of addicts and scammers out there. Now, the kind of addict trying to scam a drugstore was not the same as an addict copping heroin the second is usually a lot more reasonable. He knew that he could get baking soda or a nasty staph infection or an OD, but he paid his sawbucks and took the risks. Working in a pharmacy, I got to meet the creative types, so let me introduce you to:
7. Fake Script Frank: You wouldn’t believe the number of fake scripts we got for Vicodin, Soma, Oxycontin, Percocet, Ritalin, etc. I usually worked 2nd or 3rd shift so naturally there would be no way we could call the doc to verify the script. At that point Frank would start with I need to get it tonight, I’m going on a business trip tomorrow, or simply wail “But I’m in PAIN!!! I need it NOW!”
Some of them were so obviously bogus it was funny, like the Francine who brought in a prescription for Tylenol #3–aim high, lady!—that had been made on an clogged ink-jet printer. Apart from the fact the doctor was retired (I guess shed plucked the name from an old phone book) and his DEA number didn’t seem to exist, it really didn’t help her case that she had misspelled both “Tylenol” and “DEA.” Some were either too afraid or too stupid to fake a script altogether; rather, they would take an existing script and just alter the strength from, say, Hydrocodone 5s to 15s (which also don’t exist–10 mg is the highest strength of immediate-release hydrocodone), or adding refills where none had existed previously.
The pharmacist I worked with (well call him Riff) was the veteran of so many robberies that his policy regarding bogus scripts was that unless they were written with a Magic Marker on a brown paper bag, he filled them. His rationale being that he wasn’t paid enough to risk his life for the greater glory of a drugstore chain. Also, you never know when one of these guys has a gun.
6. No Refills Ronald: Ronnie would bring in a bottle usually from either an ER or urgent care center that was clearly marked “No Refills. Ronnie would always magnanimously offer to wait while we filled it. When we explained that “No Refills” meant that we really, really couldn’t refill it, he would either play the “You know me! I’m a good customer!” -or- “The doctor said it was okay, couldn’t you fill it now and get the authorization from the doctor tomorrow?” card. When I would patiently reiterate that no means no, Ron would let out the constant wail, But I’m in PAIN!!! At this point I usually turned the matter over to Riff, who would advise No Refills Ron to go back to the ER. Usually within a couple of hours, No Refills was back with a big smile and a new script. Probably a new gun, too.
5. Doctor-Shopping Darla: Darla, unlike Bogus Scripts, did have legitimate prescriptions they were just from several different sources. Generally there was her main script (written to last a month) from her regular doctor, but towards the end of the month there would also be smaller prescriptions from ERs, urgent-care centers, and sometimes even dentists. (I always loved it when someone brought in a Vicodin prescription from the dentist and then, while waiting for the prescription, scarfed down two Mars bars and a cold Mountain Dew). One Doctor-Shopping Dan was even more creative. He was a middle-aged white professional with good diction and hygiene, which Riff speculated was how he got away with so much. Dan was on regular pain meds for something I assume was legit, so the doctor would write him a script for 120 Vicodin with two refills. He’d come back in about three weeks with a prescription for Darvocet (a similar narcotic painkiller which is now no longer available), also with two refills, saying, That other stuff wasn’t working, so the doctor switched my meds. Okay but when the Vicodin came due for refilling, he’d refill that too (usually via the automated system; probably he thought no one would notice.) Rinse and repeat until empty, then he went back to the doctor and started the cycle over again. Riffs response was Hey, if his doctor doesn’t care Plus, he might have had a gun hidden somewhere in his All Things Considered tote bag. As Riff patiently explained to me, you can never be too careful with these people. Riff, himself, had several prescriptions for Valium, Xanax, K-pins. I guess he needed it, what with all the guns.
4. I Need It Early Because I’m Going on Vacation Velma: There were several variations to this: I Spilled My Meds Down the Sink (odd how this never happens with antibiotics), My Meds Got Stolen, and You Must Have Miscounted, but one particular Velma was my favorite. Now, she did have legitimate prescriptions, for Vicodin, Soma, and Xanax, though I suspect her doctor only prescribed them to get her the hell out of the office so he could fumigate. Velma was (at least according to the computer and Medicaid) in her early forties, but didn’t look a day over sixty-five. She was an obese woman with an extremely limited wardrobe of faded muumuus, a handful of badly nicotine-stained teeth, and an impressive array of diaper-less, soap-and shoe-deprived toddlers. Maybe she ran a nighttime daycare, I don’t know, because despite Velma’s obvious other forms of privation, she was always going on vacation.
Now, I’m not sure whether the laws have changed, but in those days we weren’t allowed to fill Schedule III drugs (which includes Vicodin and Xanax) [NOTE: Hydrocodone is now a Schedule II drug] more than three days early. To do this, we needed an override from the doctor and the insurance company. Velma usually showed up between two and two-and-a half weeks into a 30-day prescription and announced that she needed an early refill because she was going on vacation or going to take care of a sick relative, and needed her refill early because, after all, I don’t want to be in PAIN!!! while trying to enjoy her vacation in Disney World or Vegas or Niagara Falls or caring for her dying sister-in-law in Chicago, Ohio (yes, that is a direct quote.) Id ask her where shed be going and when she was leaving and when she was planning to be back.Then the fun began:
Since you just got it filled on (date) you should have enough to get you through to (date Velma claimed to be returning).
Oh, did I say we were leaving this week? I meant...
Well, if you’re leaving on (date), that’s only two days before your next refill, so we can do it then.
Uh,we might be leaving this week, if we can get tickets, and we don’t know exactly how long were going to be gone
You say you’re going to Chicago?
Yeah, and I don’t know how long were going to be
Well, we have several stores in Chicago. Its all in our computers, so you can just go into any
store there and get your refill.
Well, actually my sick sister lives outside Chicago, and I don’t know if you have any stores there, so…
Whats the name of the town? Ill be happy to look it up for you.
I don’t remember.
When you find out, just call back and Ill look up the nearest store.
But my sister lives out in the boonies, and she doesn’t have a car, and shes so sick I don’t know if Ill be able to leave her
Then why don’t we arrange that your husband can pick it up three days early and he can send it to you Priority Mail. You’ll get it right on time.
You don’t understand, she’d wail. I’m in PAIN!!!!
At this point, Riff would step in, take Velma around to the counseling area and quietly tell her that if she was in pain, she should go to the ER or the urgent care center. And Velma would show up a few hours later new script, big smile. Probably a big gun, too.
3. Robin the Hood: This greasy fellow would stand outside the pharmacy (coming back inside now and then for more cigarettes) and beg for painkillers, accosting mostly the elderly with bizarre stories from the fifth dimension such as, My wife has cancer and shes in lots of pain, but we don’t have no health insurance, and if you could just give me a few of whatever ya got to help her out till I can get her to the free clinic Most times the customers would just clutch their bags and run for their car or taxi, but every now and then they’d dart back into the store and ask us to call the police, who would usually sigh loudly and say, Unfortunately, miss, there’s no law against begging despite the fact that I’m pretty sure that asking people for their narcotics is illegal, and whats more, doing so on private property. For a while we had a night manager, Rocky, who would run out and tell the Robin Hoods to get lost, but Rocky, it turned out, was only marking time until his application went through at Wawa. Sometimes the Robin Hoods would even offer cash. The sad thing was, I saw a few geriatrics fall for Robins story about his cancerous wife and hand him a few, usually followed by Is this all you can spare”?
But shes in PAIN!!!
Riff steadfastly refused to intervene, since he wasn’t paid enough for that and besides, Those kinds of guys usually have knives. I’m not sure why they didn’t carry guns.
2. Crooked Tech Tina: Tina worked days, so I usually only saw her when our shifts overlapped during the super-busy 3-6 pm hours. She was very sweet, our Tina. Always a smile, always polite no matter how much of an asshole the customer was. Always volunteering to count the pills Which she sucked at. Since Riff didn’t bother re-counting the Schedule III drugs (Tylenol #3 and #4, the benzos like Xanax and Valium, and the ever-popular Vicodin) the customers lucky enough to have Tina waiting on them were always short a couple… Or five… Or ten, depending on how big the script was. If the error was ever discovered, Tina could always blame someone new who was working that day or the fact that the pharmacy must’ve been real busy”Ill have the pharmacists check our counts and get back to you. Then there were those people who called in their refills or dropped off their scripts and took a few days to pick them up. (Yes, Virginia, they do exist.) Strangely, even though unclaimed prescriptions were supposed to stay in the bins for fourteen days before being returned to stock, the Vicodin and Percocet scripts only stayed in the bin for about five. For someone who couldn’t count, Tina was awfully clever in some regards; She knew the names of all the local dentists and oral surgeons, and reasoned that someone who dropped off a 10-count prescription for Percocet right after an extraction or root canal and didn’t pick it up for three or four days had probably gotten over the worst of it and forgot they’d had pills. If they didn’t, there was always: Are you sure it was THIS pharmacy? Maybe your wife picked it up for you? or I’ll have the pharmacist check our counts and get back to you Eventually she got caught stealing Vicodin right off the shelf in a full view of the security cameras, which shed known they’d installed. She ended up with a small fine and community service picking beer cans off the highway. Riff said he’d suspected it all along, but he’d seen her husband when he came to pick her up, and a guy like that, I’m sure hes got a gun.
1. The I (Usually) Got Away With It Andy: After 8pm a “wall” was supposed to go down over the pharmacy area to protect the employees, but the device rarely worked so we had incidents of Andys vaulting the counter to grab the various hydrocodone/codeine products right off the shelf (the Schedule IIs, like Percocet and Oxycontin, were locked up, but I guess they’d take what they could get.) Sometimes they’d just walk around the counter. I guess they had too much lower back pain for vaulting. Generally the cops would show up 30 or 40 minutes later, lazily ask for us for a description, etc., then shrug and leave. It should be noted that these police officers did, in fact, carry guns.
The only time I ever recall the cops actually making an arrest was when an Andy held up Riff at gunpoint and forced him to open the Schedule II locker and forced him to hand over the supply of Oxycontin. No Joe Kenda-like feats of detection were required to solve the case: He was caught because he actually DID have a legitimate monthly script for Oxys, which he always filled at our pharmacy, which meant we had his name and address on file. Oh, and he also made no attempt to disguise himself, despite the fact that Riff knew him by name. I guess Andy had a bad month and ran out of his pills early, or had to go on vacation, or Tina had gotten to his script first.. I wonder if they switched Biff to methadone in prison.
Oh, and the gun he used? Turned out to be a toy. At this point I was thinking, gee, wouldn’t it be easier, cheaper and less risky to just go buy smack after all?
Sadly, the stigma against painkillers has only gotten worse The FDA has actually called for a ban on hydrocodone and oxycodone a couple of times in recent years, despite the fact that, um, doctors kind of need to be able to prescribe these. Trust me, you don’t want to sit around with a torn rotator cuff, a broken arm, or three days post-C-section with only Advil to ease your pain. (It won’t.) The new extended-release formula of hydrocodone, Zohydro, has come under heavy fire and some states have even tried to block sales. Of course, the people who really need these drugs—which, under the circumstances, could potentially be any one of us—will be forever looked at askance by pharmacists and everyone else, who view them as potential scammers, criminals and addicts who probably have guns, too.