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The Letter (and Spirit) of Drug Import Laws

It's illegal (nudge, nudge) to buy prescriptions drugs (wink, wink) from other countries.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell continued...

"The agency doesn't go after individuals, per se," says Tom McGinnis, PharmD, director of pharmacy affairs for the FDA. "The agency has tended to focus its priorities on people making money from this illegal activity."

McGinnis tells WebMD that the personal importation policy "has been in existence for a long time, probably since the '50s, and that if you read it carefully, only deals with things that are not available in the U.S." McGinnis says that the policy was intended to allow patients with serious, life-threatening conditions who have exhausted all available alternatives in the U.S. to try, under the guidance of their physicians, alternative therapies approved for the condition in other countries.

Anything to Declare?

U.S. Customs, for its part, warns travelers not to assume that medications approved abroad are also legal in the U.S., or that the labeled uses for which a drug is approved elsewhere hold true in the United States. The Customs service also cautions that:

  • Some medications available only by prescription in the U.S. may be sold over the counter in foreign countries. They could be dangerous to use without medical supervision.
  • Some drugs that appear to be made in the U.S. may be counterfeits.
  • It may be a violation of federal or state law to be in possession of some drugs without a prescription from a U.S. physician.
  • All imported medications must be properly declared to U.S. Customs.

The Customs service warns that "when the type of drug, the quantity, or the combination of various drugs arouse suspicions, U.S. Customs inspectors will ordinarily contact the nearest FDA or DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] office for advice and will then make a final determination about whether to release or detain the article."

And if all of the above makes perfect sense to you, we'd like to know what you've been taking -- we'd like some, too.

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