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Why Importing Medications from Abroad might be Breaking the Law

As pharmaceutical prices continue to soar almost three times more than America’s rate of inflation, more consumers are buying prescriptions drugs off the internet and purchasing cheaper medications while abroad. Admittedly, low prices on antibiotics and blood pressure medications are attractive incentives to purchase out-of-country. But before you join the growing numbers of individuals who mail order from abroad, take note of some of the experiences that may be encountered and be smart about how and where you shop for your prescription medications. Knowing that you are purchasing from a reputable pharmacy and being aware of the Federal Drug Administration’s restrictions on the importation of drugs for personal use will help ensure your safety and prevent you from, unwittingly, breaking the law.

Beware of counterfeit drugs

In 2008, a counterfeit version of the blood thinner, Heparin, was imported from China. Before its sale could be contained,149 people died. Since the fall of 2011, The United States has been experiencing a shortage of a leading drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The FDA has received complaints about a counterfeit version of Adderall that is being fraudulently marketed on the internet under the original manufacturer’s name. Web MD warns consumers that Its active ingredients, acetaminophen(an over-the-counter pain reliever) and tramadol (a prescription narcotic), are not used to treat ADHD. Two batches of a counterfeit formulation of the cancer fighting drug, Avastin, have been discovered in the United States since the beginning of 2012. At least one of the them has been traced to Turkey and found to contain the wrong active ingredients.

Know the law

The average overseas customer assumes that any medications marketed by a pharmacy are safe for consumption. But outside the United States, unlicensed and deregulated pharmaceutical companies spring up over night and sell to unsuspecting consumers. The Drug Enforcement Administration prohibits the purchase and importation of any controlled substances without first having established a patient-doctor relationship through face-to-face contact. Although the Department of Justice has tended to be lenient on the importation of a 90-day supply of certain medications purchased for personal use, purchasing them can be a felony offense. Here are some important guidelines to know and follow before you buy overseas medications.

It is against the law to import or bring any drugs into the United States that are unapproved by the FDA. This law extends to the importation of foreign formulations that have not been tested to determine whether they meet FDA guidelines even though they are already being marketed under the same name in the US. The same law applies to any new medications that are experimental or that are not currently available for sale in American pharmacies.

The FDA has developed guidelines that permit a case-by-case determination of whether an individual may import or bring a new medication into the country for the purpose of ongoing medical treatment. Permission to bring such a drug into the United States requires that a traveler be able to produce the name and address of a treating physician and proof that treatment has already begun prior to importation of the drug.

It is illegal to purchase and/or import controlled substances from pharmacies outside of the United States without a valid prescription from a physician. The DEA defines “valid prescription” as a prescription that results from a doctor/patient relationship which involves a physical examination and/or face-to-face contact. Overseas pharmacies that advertise “resident doctors” who will review and authorize prescriptions do not meet the DEA’s guidelines.

The letter of the law as well as its intent is somewhat convoluted by a press release given by Homeland Security in 2006 stating that it planned to stop seizing small medication purchases at the Canadian border and focus on random drug testing to identify counterfeit medications. In spite of this assertion, however, importing medications from Canada continues to be illegal and turning a blind eye does not guarantee that mail-order drugs will not be confiscated.

Weigh the risk

There is no doubt that many of the medications used by specific populations in the United States can be purchased more cheaply out-of-country. Many seniors who routinely use blood pressure and heart medications order these drugs from both Canada and Mexico. With an increase in counterfeit production, however, one has to weight the cost of paying more for an FDA approved drug against the potential of acquiring a medication bottle that might contain a counterfeit drug.