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Ill Inventory: Drug Theft and Loss in the United States

Every year, countless people become reliant on pharmaceuticals. And every year, drugs go missing. Despite extensive efforts to curb addiction and abuse, America’s war on drugs is far from over. Guidelines for improving opioid prescribing practices have been implemented, yet little has actually been done to combat drug diversion, leaving pharmacies and hospitals at risk for theft.

To better understand this issue, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the most recent data from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). We then looked at the numbers of drug theft and loss that were reported in each state and categorized them by business activity and type of theft. Finally, we compared these data with previous data from 2012 to 2014. Altogether, it paints a picture of possible future trends.

Keep reading to see just how widespread drug stock issues have become in the U.S.

The Current “State” of Drug Disappearance

Substance abuse is prevalent throughout the country, and many people are going to great lengths to fund their life-threatening habits. Some are even going so far as to steal drugs from distributors, pharmacies, and hospitals. To learn more, we looked at states with above-average drug theft and loss in 2015.

By far, Arizona experienced the greatest number of occurrences. According to the DEA, Arizona reported 35.1 thefts per 100,000 people, about 66 percent more than the next-leading state, which was Missouri with 17.6.

It’s possible that Arizona’s heroin and opioid epidemic is to blame. Even though 348 million pain relievers were prescribed in 2015 – enough to medicate every adult in the state around-the-clock for two weeks – there’s a good chance that abuse behaviors are fueling these incidents. Additionally, Arizona’s Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program might be making it harder for people to legally obtain prescribed substances on an ongoing basis.

Do Arrests Correspond With Drug Inventory Shortage?

In 2014, there were an estimated 1,561,231 arrests or drug abuse violations; more than 83 percent were for possession of a controlled substance. We looked at above- and below-average arrest rates in states with above-average drug theft and loss to see if there was any correlation.

South Dakota had significantly more drug-related arrests than any other state. In 2014 alone, there were over 700 drug-related arrests per 100,000 people. Due to the rural nature of many parts of the state, different programs have been considered to provide the necessary treatment to drug abusers. However, despite these efforts, drug-related problems have continued to rise.

Tennessee followed South Dakota with nearly 650 drug abuse arrests per 100,000 people. With Tennessee ranking second in the country for prescription drug abuse, there is no doubt that its law enforcement is on high alert. As of July 2015, 85.4 percent of people at treatment centers in Tennessee indicated that prescription opioids were their drug of choice.

Fatal Overdoses for Each Type of Drug

In 2015, all of the above states experienced considerable drug theft and loss. But does that necessarily correlate with fatal overdoses? To find out which controlled substances lead to the most fatalities in states with above-average incidents, we compared four different drug categories: prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, other synthetic narcotics, and psychostimulants with abuse potential.  

At first glance, it’s apparent that New Hampshire has a crisis on its hands. In 2014, more people died from synthetic narcotics than from any other drug across the board. The synthetic drug methadone may be partially to blame for the high death rate in New Hampshire. When it comes to seeking treatment for chronic pain, many medical providers prescribe methadone because Medicaid will cover its cost.However, the drug is highly dangerous, and can stay in a person’s system even after the pain is gone. In the hands of an uninformed patient, taking another dose too soon could be fatal.

On the heels of New Hampshire was New Mexico, with a rate of 11.0 fatal overdoses from prescription opioids. The state is currently facing a prescription opioid epidemic, something the New Mexico Department of Health is hoping to mitigate. A summit was held in 2016 where the department acknowledged that prescription drugs were responsible for 48 percent of unintentional drug overdose deaths in the state.

Are Certain Businesses More Vulnerable?

Above is a breakdown of the business activities that were subject to the most drug inventory shortages in 2015. Without a doubt, pharmacies took the biggest hit,  experiencing 64.4 percent of all losses in 2015.

During the first half of 2015, 382 pharmacies in the U.S. reported armed robberies Indiana alone reported 68 of those incidents. Pain relievers and other drugs with abuse potential – such as opiates, benzodiazepines, methadone, and oxycodone – were the biggest casualties in these cases.

Hospitals were also heavily targeted, with an over 24 percent total stake in drug theft and losses. When it comes to hospital thefts, many involve hospital employees stealing controlled substances while on shift. This growing problem includes nurses pinching pills and even health providers stealing narcotics by tampering with syringes and vials.

Most Common in the U.S.: Hospitals, Pharmacies, and Reverse Distribution

When we look at the top business activities of drug deficit incidents by state, pharmacy theft and loss is by far the most common. Conversely, the Northwest as well as some parts of the West North Central and the Southwest were at greater risk for hospital drug theft and loss. The one state that stands out is Wisconsin, the only state with excessive reverse-distributor inventory shortages.

According to the DEA, reverse distributors are people who receive controlled substances for the purpose of returning them to the manufacturer. In some cases, they are also in charge of disposing of substances. Although there is not much information available to explain why Wisconsin is the only state experiencing this trend, its prescription drug take-back days might have something to do with it.

Percentages of the Top Types of Drug Theft & Loss

Although you might expect most controlled substances to be stolen, a large number of prescriptions are often lost in transit. When we examined the breakdown of drug inventory deficits by type, we found that lost-in-transit issues occurred 60.9 percent of the time.

This loss type is most likely due to subscriber or patient errors, such as giving the wrong address or forgetting to sign for a package. And now that mail-order pharmacies are becoming more convenient and popular, this category of inventory debt is bound to be more frequent.

The next largest type of drug theft or loss was employee pilferage, at 22.2 percent. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Diversion Control, health care workers are just as likely as patients to abuse drugs. And this type of abuse can have terrible consequences: drug diversion by medical providerscan often lead to infections among patients.

Most Common Types of Drug Deficits

We also looked at the top types of drug inventory issues by state. The West, South, and Northeast had the greatest numbers of incidents. The Northwest as well as parts of the Southeast and Central regions had the most issues related to drugs being lost in transit, and Nebraska, Indiana, D.C., and Vermont topped the map for armed robbery.

The map shows employee pilferage is a legitimate concern in the United States. Although tighter security could potentially remedy this situation, it isn’t always realistic.

Pharmacies are currently facing staffing shortages and low wages – the median pay for technicians is $30,000 a year – so some employees may find profit in stealing pharmaceuticals. And because hospitals are employing thousands of people, it isn’t always easy for their administrators to monitor the movements of all staff members.

Trends in Drug Inventory Deficits

Last, we looked at trends that occurred from 2012 to 2015. We categorized the trends by type: armed robbery, customer theft, employee pilferage, lost in transit, and night break-in.

Trends in customer theft, armed robbery, and night break-ins remained relatively stagnant over the years. While customer theft increased about 68 percent from 2012 to 2015, the overall number of armed robberies decreased during this time, by about 3.4 percent. The number of night break-ins also declined by about 1.7 percent.

When it comes to employee pilferage, the media has been giving it a lot of attention. But is it warranted? Although there was a small spike in the number of thefts attributed to worker theft in 2014, there was only about a 7.8 percent increase overall in the number of pilferage incidents from 2012 to 2015. Based on the trend, though, the number might go back up in the future.

Overall, there were more occasions of controlled substances being lost in transit from 2012 to 2015 than any other category. And based on calculations, these matters could increase in upcoming years.The true challenge, though, will be keeping these lost pharmaceuticals out of the wrong hands.

Preventing Drug Theft and Loss

In many ways, drug inventory deficits are inevitable. America’s addiction to pharmaceuticals has become an epidemic, and as a result, people are going to great lengths to satisfy their habits. Although data have shown that most controlled substances are simply lost in transit, it’s hard to ignore the armed robberies and pilfering that are also happening across the country.Drug theft and loss is not the cause of America’s drug problem; it’s a symptom. So maybe it’s time we take it more seriously.

If you or someone you know is struggling with pharmaceutical abuse, is there for you. With trusted resources on rehabilitation and treatment, we specialize in helping people recover from drug dependence. Contact today at  because it’s never too late.


Our FOIA from the DEA detailed the theft and loss of controlled substances up until November 2015. To account for trends in those last two months, we used the monthly 2015 average. 2012, 2013, and 2014 reports are readily available. For our drug-related arrest data, we used the FBI’s uniform crime reporting database, and for our crude rates of prescription drug fatal overdose – all of which are considered “controlled substances” by the DEA – we used the CDC’s WONDER database. Specifically: prescription opiates, also labeled “other opioids,” multiple-cause-of-death code T40.2; benzodiazepines, code T42.4; other synthetic narcotics, code T40.4; and psychostimulants with abuse potential, code T43.6.

For our breakdowns of types of drug theft and loss as well as the business activities where the theft and loss occurred, we excluded the “other” category in our data. Some reports did not include this specific information, and we focused on those that did to analyze relevant trends.

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