Quest for Cheaper Drugs Can End in a Mexican Jail

Times Staff Writer

Californians shopping for cheaper prescription drugs may have gotten a break when the Legislature voted to ease access to low-cost medicines from Canada, but south of the border, bargain-hunters can pay an unexpected, traumatic cost -- time in a Mexican slammer.

Since early last year, at least 67 Americans have been jailed here for buying medicines without a prescription from a Mexican doctor. Most recently, a 53-year-old U.S. woman was arrested here in July and spent a day in jail after buying 90 Valium tablets, a standard prescription amount, without the requisite Mexican doctor's order.

Drug shoppers in Mexico are on the same quest for discounts that has driven many Californians to buy mail-order medications from Canada, where prices also can be dramatically lower.

Late last month, days after a group of elderly Southern Californian protesters chartered a train called the "Rx Express" to buy medicines in Vancouver, the California Legislature gave final approval to a package of bills allowing cheaper drug imports from Canada. The legislation is still being considered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To the south, thousands of Americans, mostly senior citizens, cross the border daily to buy prescription drugs at places such as Tijuana and Algodones on the California border, Nogales south of Arizona and Ciudad Juarez opposite El Paso. They are pursuing savings of up to 75% on medicines ranging from antibiotics and antidepressants to heart medication and chemotherapy agents.

Mexican druggists who sell to Americans without a prescription are also breaking the law, but the police more frequently target the customers, knowing they are easy arrests and in many cases will be only too willing to pay bribes of hundreds of dollars to avoid jail.

Facing a sharp decline in tourism in recent months, some Tijuana pharmacists are mounting a campaign to warn visitors of the hazards of buying drugs without prescriptions -- and to repair Tijuana's image.

"Americans come here with no idea that they need a prescription, a Mexican prescription, to get their medicines," said Ignacio Romo Calderon, president of the Tijuana Pharmacists Assn.

"We are trying to educate the tourists because [the arrests] have given the city a bad name."

Pharmacies have multiplied here to more than 1,300 -- three times the number in San Diego, with roughly the same population -- as Mexico becomes known as an alternative to cost-conscious U.S. consumers.

Law-abiding druggists along Pharmacy Row will either refuse to sell the drugs or send consumers to one of the many doctor's offices here where physicians are known to write prescriptions for $40.

Some of the buyers arrested here obviously intended to traffick the suspiciously large quantities of drugs they bought, officials at the U.S. Consulate here said.

A Seattle man was arrested in September 2003 after allegedly buying more than 6,000 pills of medications, including controlled substances. Two clerks at Tijuana's Trip Pharmacy, where the purchases were made, were also jailed.

But most trans-border consumers are elderly Americans who simply are buying medicines for their own ailments or those of family members. Most walk into the Mexican pharmacies with a U.S. prescription or with none at all.

Alfonso Gonzalez, a San Diego retiree, drives to Tijuana every month to buy eyedrops for his glaucoma. He pays $20 for the same monthly supply of drops that in San Diego costs $90. That's a considerable savings for 70-year-old Gonzalez and his wife, who subsist on the $1,100 a month they receive in Social Security benefits.

"We retirees are the ones who suffer the most because the drug business is so controlled in the United States. It's why you never see a price reduction," said Gonzalez, who said that Medicare did not cover the cost of his drops, which he said were vital in keeping his eyesight.

He said the Tijuana pharmacy he patronized sold him his drops without a prescription.

Although police are likely to look the other way a case such as Gonzalez's eyedrops, they can come down hard on those who buy controlled substances, such as those known by their U.S. brand names Valium, Ritalin, Percodan and Darvon.

The average length of jail time is 48 hours.

Although most of those arrested are released after producing documentation proving a medical need, those who can't or who are suspected of buying drugs with trafficking in mind can be sentenced to lengthy terms.

In the most highly publicized case here, Dawn Marie Wilson, 48, received a five-year term for buying a variety of prescription drugs in Baja California last year, including anti- epilepsy medication and Valium.

Through her lawyer, she said she did not buy all the drugs listed by Mexican authorities in her court papers. Wilson is now in an Ensenada jail but is scheduled to be transferred to U.S. custody this month.

Raymond Lindell, 66, of Phoenix was held in a Nogales jail for eight weeks this year after being caught with 270 Valium pills he had bought for his wife. Lindell argued that he went to Mexico to buy the drugs after his insurer stopped reimbursing him and his wife for the cost of the tranquilizer.

In a notorious case, an Iowa woman was raped while in custody late last year after Mexican police arrested her and her husband for possession of Ritalin they had bought in Tijuana for their 9-year-old son.

The arrests of U.S. shoppers have contributed to Tijuana's dubious status as the place where more Americans are arrested -- an average of more than seven a day -- than in any other foreign city with a consular presence. Most arrests are for drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

Baja California accounts for 20% of all arrests of U.S. nationals on foreign soil each year.

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