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Importing Drugs Legal in Maine, for Now

It’s not unheard of for a Mainer to buy their prescription drugs while in Canada. When the price differences warrant it, we aren’t shy about taking meds across the border. The same thing is true for the Mexican border and citizens who live near it. The practice makes sense from a consumer standpoint. Canada has rules about drug safety that mirror ours, and quite often, the pills are the exact same thin – not even generics, but made by the same manufacturer.

Two weeks ago, Maine law made this legal, along with allowing drug sales via the Internet from foreign pharmacies. And there’s an ongoing battle to put Maine “back in the box” since.

The main reason to approve the practice was the price differential that exists across political boundaries. Pharmaceutical companies may face different regulations and economic decisions with the result that in Canada, a drug can cost half what it does in the US. Not for all drugs necessarily, but enough to make importing attractive.

Opponents argue that importing merchandise, especially highly regulated items like pharmaceuticals, is the purview of the federal government. The feds do take this role seriously and in the past have successfully stopped laws like Maine’s from being used.

Another problem stems from the Internet itself. Unlicensed or unregulated businesses can pretend to be legitimate operations, but instead, sell tainted or counterfeit drugs. It’s very tough to regulate practices in a virtual world. Users have no direct way of checking to see if they are doing business with an actual pharmacy.

The bottom line comes with the Food and Drug Administration’s rules. Since they have no way to test for quality assurance when a drug is imported to a consumer, the medication cannot be approved. This is true, even when a drug originates in the US, is shipped to Canada, and then resold and shipped back into the US. Normally, within the US, a chain of supply is preserved and drug items are stored in controlled temperatures and tracked. Once they leave the US, this chain of custody cannot be assured.

According to reports the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has reviewed thousands of Web sites selling prescription drugs. They generated a “Not Recommended” list based on finding that 97 percent of sites were not operating up to professional and legal standards. According to The Wall Street Journal, at least two organizations in Maine are seeking to have their employees use CanaRx, a site which is on NABP’s list.

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