The thieves who broke into six homes in Edgartown over the past 10 days did not take jewelry, electronics, cash or any other valuables. They were after one thing only: prescription medications.

But that is not the outstanding fact about the cases, notes Detective Sergeant Chris Dolby of the Edgartown Police Department. Nor is the fact that the break-ins were carried out brazenly in broad daylight. The salient fact is that in three of the six houses the thieves targeted, they found what they were looking for.

“The drugs they’re after are opiate derivatives. Anything with the name Oxy on it — Oxycodone, Oxycontin and Percocet are the drugs of choice,” said detective Dolby.

“And they’re at 50 per cent right now. In half of the homes they found what they were looking for.”

Prescription drug abuse, he said “is not just a problem, it’s a plague. All over the country.”

Now, there is nothing particularly new about substance abuse problems on Martha’s Vineyard. Over the past couple of decades at least, high levels of alcohol and drug abuse have been noted here.

But the rise in prescription drug abuse is bringing with it something we are not so used to on this Island where many people have never bothered to lock up.

As detective Dolby puts it: “No one breaks into a house in the hope there is cocaine there, unless they know they’re breaking into a dealer’s house.”

“But with prescription meds, the chances are they’ll find them. I’d guess better than 50 per cent of the homes anywhere contain these types of medications.”

The Vineyard, like the rest of the state, the rest of the nation, has entered a “new era” of drugs and drug-related crime, he said.

The central problem is that these drugs, unlike heroin or cocaine, are not always illegal; many people possess them for legitimate reasons, which makes it harder to act against those who seek access to them for illegitimate reasons.

Sergeant Jeff Stone, coordinator of the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force, explains: “The prescription drug problem is the biggest drug problem that we have on the Island. We get more calls about people buying, selling, using prescription drugs than we do about any other kind of drug.

“Out on the street they’re paying a dollar a milligram. So 30 milligram Percocets are going for $30,” he said.

“So someone might get a prescription for 30 Percocets for a $6 co-pay, and then they can sell them for $30 each.

“It’s a huge market.”

Over about the past year, he said, police had been liaising with Island doctors and the hospital, passing on information they had about people suspected of abusing prescriptions.

“And the doctors have been doing their best to cut problem people off,” Sgt. Stone said.

But the unintended consequence of that is that people dependent on prescription drugs, and their suppliers, have turned to other means of obtaining them.

“And that’s what’s happening in Edgartown. They are busting into people’s houses hoping people like you and me have old pain medications still in their cabinets.”

In the six break-ins over recent days, as well as two other in Edgartown last month, the modus operandi was basically the same. The thieves either entered an unlocked house, or smashed a glass panel in a door to let themselves in.

While the robberies were not subtle, they were quick. The thieves spent minimal time inside, simply going to nightstands, bathroom and kitchen cabinets, taking whatever they could find, and getting out again.

As well as contributing to property crime, Sgt. Stone said, the illicit trade in prescription medicines also contributed to other drug crime.

“Heroin is actually cheaper than the prescription narcotics. People get hooked on painkillers and then when they can’t afford them they turn to heroin,” he said.

What to do?

Detective Dolby advised heightened awareness, for a start.

“Keep an eye out. Keep an eye on your neighbor’s property. If anything seems out of place, grab a license plate, grab a description. Call 911,” he said.

But beyond that, said Sgt. Stone, it was hard for people to know what to do.

“They tell you not to flush old medications because they get in the water supply. You can’t take them back to the hospital,” he noted.

“Some police departments have begun holding old medication turn-in days, and they then turn them over to the Federal DEA, who dispose of them safely.”

“We’ve been thinking about having one out here in the near future.

“We’ve spoken to other departments who’ve done it. It’s just a matter of getting the right people out, and picking the day.”