DEA: Dangerous amounts of addictive narcotics flooded streets following pharmacy looting this summer

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Before Elias Usso turned off the lights and locked the front doors of Seward Pharmacy one night in late May, he made sure the most addictive narcotics were locked up in a safe.

Despite protests earlier in the day on May 27, Usso believed the crowds gathering in the wake of George Floyd’s death would remain peaceful. He expected to return to work the next morning, filling prescriptions just like normal at the neighborhood pharmacy he opened on Lake Street in Minneapolis less than a year earlier.

Business as usual, he thought, as he went home for the night.

Then Usso’s phone started buzzing.

A security app on his iPhone alerted him to movement inside.

Looters had broken through windows and were ransacking the shelves, searching for the most valuable prescription drugs, as Usso helplessly watched from home in real-time.

“It was the most difficult night for us,” he said. “We literally slept on the sofa… and then the next day it was difficult to wake up and come here.”

Once he walked into work the next morning, Usso found his inventory of prescription drugs destroyed. The thieves had stolen thousands of pills — and even carried out the safe he had made sure was locked the night before.

“I’m worried actually, I’m worried that this medication is on the street, that it will probably harm some people unintentionally, and unknowingly. People may take it in may harm them. I’m really concerned about that,” Usso said.

5 INVESTIGATES has learned Seward’s Pharmacy is one of at least 20 pharmacies around the Twin Cities that reported losses to state and federal officials in wake of the civil unrest this summer.

While the majority were chain pharmacies, like CUB Pharmacy, CVS and Walgreens, independent stores were also hit, including Seward’s, Banadir’s, and Lloyd’s Pharmacy in St. Paul, which burned to the ground.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates about one million doses — either pills or syrup — were stolen or destroyed in the looting. The street value is estimated at up to $15 million.

As the DEA’s lead investigator for Minnesota puts it, addictive drugs that are ripe for abuse have now flooded the Twin Cities.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Angela von Trytek, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the DEA in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “It’s a significant problem for citizens in Minnesota.”

Von Trytek told 5 INVESTIGATES it will “absolutely” accelerate an already dire trend of deadly overdoses. Experts say overdoses are up as much as 40 percent nationwide.

By law, pharmacies are required to report to the DEA any type of what’s called diversion — whether it’s pills that dropped on the floor and have to be discarded or actual theft.

In this case, the agency was inundated with reports of theft all at once. After the first night or two of looting, some pharmacists even called the DEA desperately hoping to unload their stock of controlled drugs to keep them safe, but the agency said it is not allowed to store drugs.

“This has been a very, very unique experience,” she said. “We are still bringing back lessons learned… this isn’t the first time and tragically I’m not sure this will be the last time in America that you potentially could see that type of civil unrest.”

In fact, the looting of pharmacies did not end with the initial round of unrest. Months later, in late August, rioters hit downtown Minneapolis again after misinformation circulated about another police shooting.

According to a search warrant obtained by 5 INVESTIGATES, a group of men broke into North Loop Clinic and Pharmacy, stole thousands of addictive pills and tried to get away with the store’s locked safe.

It’s among several active and ongoing criminal investigations.

“I don’t know that we have words anymore at this point,” said Sarah Derr, who runs the Minnesota Pharmacists Association.

The trade group is now focused on helping drug stores get back up and running, since many are still working out of temporary locations, and at least three remain closed.

“This is something that is completely unprecedented. It has gone from this is crazy to, I don’t know how we can recover,” she said.

Despite the setback, Usso built back up his inventory and just reopened his pharmacy last month after being shut down for most of the summer.

He’s hoping the community gets the message about what’s missing.

“If it’s not prescribed for you, do not take it, it’s going to harm you,” he said.