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Is Importing Life-Saving Drugs Still Illegal?

Despite what you may have heard, it is still illegal to import prescription drugs from other countries into the United States. The only exception is if a life-saving drug is not available in the United States and all other treatments have failed. However, there are guidelines surrounding this practice. Attempts have been made to change the law regarding this, but have not been successful as of yet.


Confusion About the Law

Some advertisements in magazines and on the Internet imply that Congress has made it legal to import prescription drugs from Canada or that importing a 90-day supply for personal use is allowed. Neither of these statements is true. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may choose to impound mail-order prescriptions arriving from Canada or other countries and either return them to the sender or destroy them.
Despite the risk of confiscation, about one million Americans filled prescriptions in Canada in 2013. Since the Canadian government negotiates lower prices with pharmaceutical companies, drugs cost, on average, about 50 percent less than in the United States.
Obtaining illegal prescription drugs is a common practice in towns that border Mexico and Canada. However, under certain circumstances, it is possible for individuals to import life-saving drugs that would otherwise be illegal.

Exception for Life-Saving Drugs

The FDA may permit people to import small quantities of drugs sold abroad for treatment of a serious condition. Importation of life-saving drugs is only allowed if effective treatment is not available in the United States.
The drugs cannot be dangerous to the person or be resold to others. A person seeking to import such a drug must send an application to the nearest FDA district office. The person must include the name of the licensed U.S. physician who will supervise his or her treatment with the unapproved drug.
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