BRUNSWICK, Maine (Reuters) - It was yet another pharmacy robbery in the small town of Sanford, Maine, where a woman claiming to have a gun said she would shoot if she didn't get the prescription painkiller OxyContin.
It was also a picture of how Maine is now on the front lines of a U.S. prescription drug epidemic the Obama Administration compares to the crack cocaine crisis of the 1980s.
Maine, the New England state better known for its striking coastline and wilderness, has the country's highest rate of residents in treatment to kick OxyContin, a brand name for a long-acting form of oxycodone, and has suffered one of the nation's biggest spikes in pharmacy robberies.
The highly addictive opiate has been blamed for a rash of drug store break-ins by desperate addicts and drug dealers who hawk the valuable pills on the black market, authorities say.
One 80-milligram tablet of OxyContin, sometimes called "OC" or "hillbilly heroin," fetches up to $100 on the street.
OxyContin is the opiate-derived analgesic oxycodone made by Purdue Pharma. A generic version of oxycodone became available in 2004.
Last week's CVS pharmacy holdup in Sanford was the fourth drug store robbery in the southern Maine town in roughly a year. It came months after a man brandishing a machete in Rockland, Maine, demanded that a Rite Aid hand over oxycodone, some of which he immediately gobbled inside the store before six officers with guns drawn surrounded him.
"Maine has a serious prescription drug abuse problem, and oxycodone and OxyContin are the two most sought-after prescription drugs," said Sanford Police Chief Thomas Connolly. "It leads to a whole universe of issues."
Contributing to the problem is the large number of prescriptions written for the mostly blue-collar workforce that sometimes experiences painful work conditions, experts said.
Adults share drugs with friends, and teenagers swipe them from the family medicine chest for "pharming parties," where drugs are used or sold.
It's a national epidemic. In New York City, the borough of Staten Island made headlines last month when authorities arrested a man dealing pills out of a "Lickety Split" ice cream truck. He is accused of selling more than 40,000 prescription oxycodone pills and leading a 30-person drug ring with two-dozen runners to fill fake prescriptions.
Florida is the undisputed epicenter of America's illegal "pill-mill" trade and prescription dope dealing, law enforcement officials say. In these clandestine clinics, individuals can buy medically unnecessary oxycodone for cash.
In Maine, pharmacy robberies shot up to 21 last year, from just seven in 2009 and two in 2008, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
At the same time, Maine has the highest rate of residents in treatment for addiction for these prescription pills -- about eight times the national average, at 386 people per 100,000 as of 2008, the U.S. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration says. Vermont comes in second at 331 per 100,000, and other states lag far behind.
When it comes to actual abuse of pain relief drugs, rather than treatment for addiction, Maine about average for the nation, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Because pharmaceuticals are legal, experts say the pills are easier to obtain than illicit drugs. Statistics show U.S. drug seekers also are becoming younger, with teenagers and young adults often believing prescription pills are safer than illegal drugs.
Now, the rate of prescription drug abuse is outpacing abuse of cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and meth combined, analysis shows.
Steps being taken to curb abuse and guard against robberies include random police visits to pharmacies, enhanced surveillance and alarm systems, not stocking OxyContin, education initiatives and prescription monitoring systems between providers and pharmacies.
In Sanford, witnesses to the robbery of OxyContin last week managed to tackle the thief outside the store and summon police, who recovered the pills.
"What makes prescription pills so valuable is that they're pharmaceutical-grade -- it's pure -- and you don't have to worry about where you're getting it from," Sanford police chief Connolly said.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Mahoney in Durham, Maine, Lauren Kieper in Boston and Bernd Debusmann Jr. in New York; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)