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Importing Medicine from Canada Is Illegal but Is It Risky?

Do you know how much your medicine actually costs? Not just the copay, but the full retail price? That's why many people try importing medicine from Canada.
Importing Medicine from Canada Is Illegal but Is It Risky?
Man holding capsules in front of complete wavy national flag of canada symbolizing health medicine cure vitamines and healthy life

Politicians of every stripe complain about the high cost of prescription drugs. So far, though, all they do is talk. Nothing has been done to help patients deal with skyrocketing drug costs. The administration wants to allow states to import drugs from Canada, but not individuals. Is importing medicine from Canada illegal for individuals? In a word, yes! How dangerous is it to buy from legitimate online Canadian pharmacies? Read on to find out.

The High Cost of Drugs in the U.S.

Within days of the new year, major drug companies raised prices on nearly 500 medications. Pharma manufacturers such as AbbVie, Allergan, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gilead, Merck, Novartis and Pfizer jumped on the bandwagon.

Here are just a few of the medications that will be going up in price:

Armour Thyroid, Chantix, Eliquis, Ellipta, Flovent, Humira, Januvia, Jardiance, Premarin, Spiriva, Truvada and Vyvanse. We suspect that you recognize a lot of these products because many have been advertised on television.

Americans pay more for their prescription medicines than people in any other developed country. Moreover, drug prices have been rising for years. A recent survey by Consumer Reports has found that 12 percent of respondents noticed a prescription drug price increase of at least $100 in 2019.

Importing Medicine from Canada?

It is hardly any wonder that people have been looking for ways to save money on medicines. One of the approaches many of our readers have tried is importing medicine from Canada.

According to a 2019 analysis from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University:

“Canada pays much less for pharmaceuticals than the U.S. does—56 percent less, compared to only about 4 percent less for non-pharmaceutical products such as groceries…” (KelloggInsight, Oct. 4, 2019). 

The trouble is, technically it is illegal for Americans to try importing medicine from Canada, or anywhere else for that matter.

The FDA cautions that

“In most circumstances, it is illegal for individuals to import drugs into the United States for personal use. This is because drugs from other countries that are available for purchase by individuals often have not been approved by FDA for use and sale in the United States. For example, if a drug is approved by Health Canada (FDA’s counterpart in Canada) but has not been approved by FDA, it is an unapproved drug in the United States and, therefore, illegal to import. FDA cannot ensure the safety and effectiveness of drugs that it has not approved.”

Is the FDA Being Hypocritical About Importing Medicine from Canada?

The FDA’s position sounds rational until you realize that 80 percent of key pharmaceutical ingredients of American drugs are imported from places like China, India, Thailand, Brazil or Slovakia. Scandals about generic drug contamination, shredded quality control documents and substandard manufacturing have undermined public confidence in the FDA’s ability to monitor overseas pharmaceutical firms.

When Americans buy drugs from Canada, however, they are usually purchasing brand-name products that have been approved in the US. By the way, there is little point in buying generic drugs in this way; generic drugs are generally cheaper in the US than in Canada. That is not necessarily a plus, though. It means that buyers for chain drug stores look for the best deals they can get. Quality may not enter the equation.

The brand-name drugs Canadian pharmacies sell are mostly made in the very same manufacturing plants that make those medications for the US market. As a result, the FDA argument does not stand up well under these situations.

Why Is It OK for States to Import Drugs from Canada?

The Trump administration has been pursuing a plan that would allow states to purchase Canadian drugs for state employees as well as Medicare and Medicaid recipients. This pending legislation would only allow pharmacies and drug wholesalers to purchase from Canada, though. It would still be illegal for individuals to try importing medicine from Canada. Does that make any sense to you at all?

Of course, the FDA does not want to be seen busting grandmothers for buying blood pressure pills from Canada. As a result, the feds have not been enforcing the importation law strictly in most cases.

Can Importing Medicine from Canada Be Safe?

Unfortunately, many rogue websites take unfair advantage of Canada’s good reputation. While they claim to be located in Canada, they may actually be in Turkey, Vanuatu, India or someplace else.

There are strategies that can help you determine which websites belong to legitimate Canadian pharmacies. If the site does not require a physician’s prescription, it is probably bogus. Also, legitimate Canadian pharmacies must display the provincial pharmacy license number, a physical address and phone number on the website.

Stories from Readers About Importing Medicine from Canada:

Jackie is mad as hell!

“Isn’t it odd that Medicare, and Americans in general, are prohibited by law from importing medicine from Canada, Mexico, etc., due to possible safety concerns? But American drug companies are not prohibited from importing and selling drugs from countries that are known to have serious manufacturing quality and safety violations over and over again. We, on the other hand, are forced by our health insurers to purchase these dangerous generics instead of brand name drugs.

“The FDA has failed in its mission! Congress has failed the American public by accepting bribes from Big Pharma (in the form of campaign donations)! Doctors and pharmacists have failed us as well, by drinking the Big Pharma and FDA ‘Kool Aid.’ Meanwhile, the price of ‘safe’ meds skyrockets, and the entire industry, as well as our lawmakers, turns a blind eye! I no longer trust anyone involved in the US health care delivery system.”

Julie has been buying brand name Wellbutrin by importing medicine from Canada:

“I have had no luck with generic forms of the antidepressant buproprion. The only thing that works for me is brand name Wellbutrin. Years back when it became unaffordable, I started getting my Wellbutrin XL from Canadian pharmacies. Fortunately, I had a doctor who was willing to send my script to Canada back when it wasn’t so common. He has continued to do so ever since. I need the brand to feel my best. A 90-day supply costs me about $100 out of pocket.”

A 90-supply of Wellbutrin XL 300 purchased in a U.S. pharmacy could cost over $6,000. Do you understand why someone like Julie would consider importing medicine from Canada?

Nancy shared this perspective:

“I used the Graedons’ eGuide to Saving Money on Medicine to find a reliable online Canadian pharmacy (I chose one in Vancouver, BC). I will never go back to commercial US pharmacies. Not only was it easy to fax them a 3-month copy of my Rx with refills, but I can choose from where they are sourcing my medicine. I can select from UK made, Turkey made, Canada made, India made, etc. Within an hour I get a confirmation call from a pharmacist or tech who goes thru my vitals, how I’m using the medication, if the dosage is correct, and cites me an arrival time because it has to go through customs. If your pharmacist cannot tell you where your meds are manufactured, consider another pharmacy.”

We have written in detail about this entire process in our eGuide to Saving Money on Medicines. It is available in the Health eGuide section of www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.

If Congress implemented pricing strategies that would make drugs more affordable, the question of drug importation would become irrelevant. Do you think that will happen any time soon? How many Rs are there in Fat Chance?

Share your thoughts about importing medicine from Canada in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
  • Chown, J., et al, "Would 'Medicare for All' Really Reduce Healthcare Costs in the U.S.?," KelloggInsight, Oct. 4, 2019.
  • FDA Basics, "Is it legal for me to personally import drugs?," https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/fda-basics/it-legal-me-personally-import-drugs
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