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50+: Live Better, Longer

The Letter (and Spirit) of Drug Import Laws

It's illegal (nudge, nudge) to buy prescriptions drugs (wink, wink) from other countries.
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Let's make this very clear. It's absolutely, unequivocally, without question illegal to reimport into the U.S. prescription drugs that have been exported to other countries, or to bring in substances that are banned under U.S. law, for any reason, except when you've got a prescription and the FDA or customs agents say it's OK, or decide to look the other way.

Get it? Neither do we.

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The old adage that "those who love the law and sausages should never watch either one being made" certainly applies to drug policy. But neither the FDA nor the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are necessarily to blame for the confusion.

Burdened by skyrocketing health care costs, consumers, employers, and insurers are looking for ways to save, and one of the most obvious targets is drug costs. Because Canada and most other industrialized nations impose price restrictions and limit what pharmacies can charge for drugs, the cost of a brand-name medication sold in Toronto can be as much as 55% less than what the identical drug is sold for just across Lake Ontario in Rochester, N.Y.

While the practice of reimporting drugs from Canada, Mexico, or other countries is still technically illegal (with the possible exceptions noted below), it is increasingly becoming a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed three versions of bills that would allow consumers to import legal drugs for personal use. A similar measure, known as the Dorgan-Snowe Drug Importation bill, is currently before the Senate.

In the meantime, the mission of the FDA, as always, is to promote and protect the health of Americans. The mission of the U.S. Customs service is to enforce Federal laws and regulations as they pertain to imported substances such as drugs. And here's where the law gets kind of squishy.

Current law says that if Granny decides she can get her heart medications more cheaply in Alberta than in Alabama, she could be busted for either bringing it over the border or having it delivered to her. Does that mean that dear Granny is likely to do a stretch in solitary? Hardly, experts say, because nobody wants to be seen putting the cuffs on elderly pensioners. Also, they'd have to arrest the governments of the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Vermont, as well as many city governments and private employers who have turned north for lower-cost prescription drugs.

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