Think twice before buying prescription drugs in Mexico

Healthy Traveler

For many travelers crossing the border to Mexico, the lower prices of prescription drugs are just too tempting to resist, despite the recent imprisonment of U.S. citizens who bought drugs in Mexico and last month’s warning from the Food and Drug Administration about counterfeit drugs in Mexico.

Raymond Lindell, a 66-year-old Phoenix retiree, was arrested in May on charges of buying 270 Valium pills without a Mexican prescription at a Mexican pharmacy in Nogales. He was released in mid-July, and charges were dismissed.

Dawn Wilson, 49, of San Diego was jailed in April 2003 for buying drugs without a prescription. She has lost two appeals, and her five-year sentence has been upheld. She remains in custody in Ensenada, Mexico.


“U.S. residents spend more than $1 billion, easily, at Mexican pharmacies per year,” said Marvin Shepherd, director of the Center for Pharmacoeconomic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

They’re lured because the drugs are often cheaper than in the U.S. and because many medications that require a prescription here are available over the counter in Mexico.

In the FDA’s view, buying drugs in Mexico is a safety issue.

“The FDA can’t assure that a product bought in another country [and] not approved for sale in the U.S. conforms to the manufacturing and quality assurance procedures that are mandated in this country,” said Laura Alvey, an FDA spokeswoman.

Before you decide to shop at farmacias, know the law and weigh the risks, said Shepherd, who has studied the practice of Americans buying drugs in Mexico and Canada. You also should check out the information on .

The interstate shipment, including importation, of unapproved new drugs is prohibited in the U.S. (“Unapproved” new drugs are any medicines that have not received the FDA’s OK and include foreign-made versions of U.S.-approved drugs.) But under FDA guidance, officials can use discretion to decide whether small supplies of drugs (usually three months or less) that aren’t controlled substances can be allowed into the U.S.

“Technically, this is illegal,” said Tom McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs for the FDA. “We use enforcement discretion to allow small amounts of noncontrolled prescription drugs, even though they are not approved by the FDA.”


It is best to have a U.S. prescription for the drugs, McGinnis said.

When it comes to controlled substances such as tranquilizers and painkillers, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has jurisdiction.

The DEA may allow the import of a personal supply of a controlled prescription drug, said Ed Childress, a DEA spokesman.

“To possess a controlled substance in the U.S., you must have a prescription written by a U.S. doctor,” he said.

Shepherd, the University of Texas researcher, advises U.S. citizens not to buy a controlled substance in Mexico. But if you do, “make sure you have a Mexican prescription for everything,” to adhere to Mexican laws, he said. To reduce the risk of problems when reentering the U.S., have a U.S. prescription too for controlled substances.

Travelers in Mexico buying prescription drugs that are not controlled still should be careful.

“One in five drugs is counterfeit or substandard,” Shepherd said, citing studies in medical literature. You can’t always tell by looking. “There are no good ways to buy a product [in Mexico] and be sure it is not counterfeit.”


Healthy Traveler appears every other week. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at