The opioid crisis continues to grow and take its toll on communities around the country. In the US alone, more than 47,000 Americans died of opioid overdose in 2017. But death isn’t the only way opioid addiction ruins lives. Like with many addictions, opioid addicts are often driven to adopt destructive and illegal behaviors that harm not only themselves but those around them. One such behavior is burglary, as the US has seen a rise in opioid-related theft and addict incarceration in recent years.
What motivates opioid addicts to steal?
The motivation behind theft may seem obvious: thieves want something without paying for it. But the real motivations are much more nuanced than that; for instance, consider drug addicts. According to one study, as many as 51% of interviewees gave “the need to acquire drugs” as their top reason for committing burglary.
Drugs such as opioids are highly addictive. They trigger the release of endorphins in the brain, which dulls pain and gives intense feelings of pleasure and well-being. When the feeling wears off, users often describe a sort of “crash” where they may feel worse than before and want to experience that high again very soon.
Unfortunately, over time, the body becomes less sensitive to opioids. It takes more and more of the drug to get that high. This creates a destructive cycle of uncontrollable cravings and compulsive behavior to satisfy the overwhelming need for those endorphins.
Addicts quickly lose control of themselves and their lives when caught in this cycle. Normal life becomes impossible, and they will do anything— including resorting to theft— to get more drugs. No one can fight the overwhelming urges of substance dependence alone, yet rehabilitation services are lacking; even with the best care, relapse rates for any addiction is high. The shame and the insurmountable task of getting their lives back on track can be enough to send addicts back to their drug of choice.
The dangerous addiction cycle and the extreme difficulties of escape all contribute to the desperation that motivates opioid-related burglaries and violence. When an addict cannot get their fix, they have little self-control and will go to great measures to get their high again.
Opioid addicts have increasing difficulty obtaining their drugs. As doctors realize the high risk of addiction to prescription opioids, they reduce the number of prescriptions written and refilled, cutting off the supply to addicted patients. Without a legal supply, many turn to theft to feed the addiction, stealing the drugs from pharmacies or stealing goods and money to buy drugs off the streets.
This lack of a legal opioid supply for many addicts has expanded the illegal opioid market, giving street dealers a steady stream of customers. However, to meet the demand they must steal or illegally purchase the drugs themselves and often resort to theft. The extremely addictive nature of opioids and the decreasing legal supply have all contributed to the rise in opioid-motivated burglary.
An increase in pharmacy robberies
Pharmacies across the nation have seen an increase in robberies as the opioid crisis escalates. In 2017, Minnesota reported the number of burglaries at its pharmacies had doubled in the previous two years, with perpetrators demanding prescription painkillers. In recent years, Georgia has found itself among the nation’s top 11 states with the most opioid deaths as well as the top 10 states with the most armed robberies of pharmacies.
Security camera footage reveals the violence burglars often employ to get what they want, pushing pharmacists or holding them at gunpoint while they raid pharmacy supplies. Some work in groups, others individually. Some are merely teenagers working for an older dealer.
Meanwhile, pharmacies find themselves short on the drugs patients with prescriptions need, or they stop carrying the drugs altogether, making it difficult for patients to purchase their medications.
Others have found ways to step up their security measures. For instance, after Indiana was found to be the 2015 leader in pharmacy robberies, chain pharmacy CVS installed time delay safes at more than 150 Indianapolis stores, which drastically slashed robberies at its locations.
Incarceration rates for opioid addicts
With the rising number of opioid-related burglaries, the number of incarcerated opioid addicts has also risen. In fact, it is now estimated that in the US, nearly 20% of prisoners are addicted to opioids. It’s important to note that opioid use itself isn’t illegal, like illicit drugs.
While it remains to be seen just how many of these inmates were convicted of opioid-related crimes, police across the country have reported an increase in car break-ins, shoplifting and home invasions in committed by addicts looking for drugs or drug money in previously “safe” neighborhoods.
According to a 2018 study published in JAMA Network Open, opioid addicts are more likely to commit and be tried for crimes than the average adult. The connection isn’t a huge surprise. What’s tragic is how many of these defendants have been otherwise law-abiding citizens whose addictions have gotten the better of them and driven them to crime.
The enormity of opioid-related burglary
It’s long been known that drug abuse correlates closely with crime. The same is true of opioid addiction. What makes crimes related to the opioid crisis so dangerous, however, is the sheer number of addicts–more than 1.7 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Not all will turn to a life of crime, but an increasing number will support their habits through burglary, putting themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system and costing the nation billions of dollars each year while the nation grapples with how best to treat and prevent opioid addiction.
There is no easy answer to this problem, but the first step is recognizing that opioid addiction is a disease that increases crime rates so communities, businesses, and individuals can take measures to protect themselves in the meantime.