Can You Save Money Buying Drugs From Canadian Pharmacies?

The Risks of Less-Expensive Canadian Prescriptions

Pharmacist filling perscriptions
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Brand name prescription drugs in Canada and many other countries typically cost less than in the United States. With Canada in such close proximity, many Americans are tempted to purchase their medications from Canadian pharmacies. It seems like a great idea, but before you buy prescription drugs from any foreign pharmacy, there are some things you should know.

Why Drugs Are Less Expensive in Canada

Many foreign countries, including Canada, control the price of drugs that are sold and distributed in their territories.

This is sometimes tied to the fact that they have national and universal healthcare. This allows the government to negotiate the costs and keeps the prices very low.

In contrast, there are no price controls and costs are influenced by the marketplace in the United States. Manufacturers can pass on the costs of researching, developing, and advertising new drugs to consumers. Drug companies can raise and lower prices as they see fit. However, the unregulated market in the United States benefits consumers with the prices of generic drugs, which competition keeps lower, and they are often less expensive than their foreign counterparts.

Canadian Drugs May Be Costlier Than You Expect

If you choose to purchase drugs from a Canadian pharmacy online, the shipping cost alone may make the drug more expensive. When you inquire about pricing for drugs in Canada, you'll be quoted in Canadian dollars, not the U.S. dollar.

The two currencies fluctuate every day. Use Google's currency converter to find out the current exchange rate.

Is it Legal to Buy Canadian Drugs?

Under federal law, it is not legal to import prescription drugs into the United States unless you are the manufacturer. This includes drugs manufactured in the United States and shipped to other countries.

You aren't allowed to purchase them in that country and bring them back into the U.S. These laws were established to protect consumers.

However, the law is not always strictly enforced. The FDA has issued "Coverage of Personal Importations" guidance for consumers and enforcers. You can import a 90-day supply of some prescription drugs and medical devices if you meet the following conditions:

  1. It is to be used to treat a serious condition and no effective treatment is available in the United States.
  2. You won't be selling it or promoting it to others in the United States.
  3. The medication doesn't represent an unreasonable risk.
  4. You affirm in writing that the drug is for your personal use.
  5. The quantity is no more than a three-month supply and you provide the name and address of the doctor licensed in the United States responsible for your treatment with the medication; or, you provide evidence that the medication is for continued treatment begun in a foreign country.

Safety Concerns About Using Foreign Pharmacies

Drug standards and regulations vary in each country. The FDA notes these hazards with buying foreign drugs:

  • Quality assurance concerns. The FDA rules do not apply in foreign countries and they may be more lenient.
  • Counterfeit potential. You can't be assured that what you are getting is the same as the U.S. product. It may be an unsafe or ineffective counterfeit.
  • Presence of untested substances. Ingredients that are legal in other countries may not have been evaluated in the United States.
  • Risks of unsupervised use. Are you taking the medication under the supervision of your doctor, with all of the follow-up required?
  • Labeling and language issues. The label may not have the information required by U.S. regulation, or it may be stated in terms that are unfamiliar. It may make claims that are not allowed in the United States.
  • Lack of information. An imported medication may lack information that would permit you to be promptly and correctly treated for a dangerous side effect caused by the drug.

Your Online-Purchased Medication May Not Be Approved by Health Canada

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) released their Position Paper on the Importation of Foreign Prescription Drugs in 2003 opposing importing foreign drugs, and it remains their current position. They warn against expired drugs, contaminated pills, uncertain strengths, and counterfeit drugs.

They further have sent a letter to the United States Congress about their findings on Canadian online pharmacies. They found that 96 percent of them were operating illegally. Very often, they were not Canadian at all, but other foreign sites masquerading as Canadian online pharmacies. The drugs they dispensed were not approved by Health Canada or the FDA.

Based on their 20 years of research, NABP says that U.S. consumers rarely, if ever, receive Health-Canada-approved products when buying from online pharmacies that claim to be Canadian. They often come from India, Turkey, or Southeast Asia.

Before You Buy From a Foreign Drugstore Online

Be aware that NABP is not aware of any Canadian online pharmacy that consistently dispenses Health Canada-approved drugs to U.S. consumers. They consider it to be impossible for a consumer to know whether they are buying from a legitimate site. Even if you use the general guidelines for purchasing drugs safely online your risks range from substandard product delivery to medical identity theft.

Purchasing from an online Canadian pharmacy follows a similar set of recommendations to purchasing drugs in Canada in person. Be aware of what the FDA and U.S. Customs expect and require. There are several websites that you might check:

  • VIPPS, the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site, includes verified, licensed Canadian pharmacies.
  • You can verify licensing of a Canadian pharmacy at the Canadian International Pharmacy Association (CIPA,) website.
  • Pharmacy Checker reviews Canadian and other foreign online pharmacies as well.

Before You Go to Canada to Buy Prescriptions

In general, it is important to be aware of the illegal nature of what you are doing. However, as long as you stick to the FDA and U.S. Customs parameters, you may be able to purchase drugs from a Canadian drug store. Check the licensing of the pharmacy with the CIPA. Never buy drugs from street vendors.

Be sure to take your doctor's prescription with you. Since you will be turning that copy over to the Canadian pharmacist, take along an extra copy of the prescription as well. You will need it to show Customs when you return to the United States. 

A Word From Verywell

While you may want to save money on your medications, it is best to explore the options available to you legally in the United States. Ask your doctor about generic drugs for your prescriptions. Check trusted U.S. online pharmacies for cost savings. Know that even the wariest buyers can't be assured of what they buy from a foreign online pharmacy.

Sources:

FDA. Imported Drugs Raise Safety Concerns. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm143561.htm.

FDA. Personal Importation. https://www.fda.gov/forindustry/importprogram/importbasics/ucm432661.htm.

National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Letter to United States Congress Stating Position on Canadian Online Pharmacies Dispensing to US Patients. February 2017. https://nabp.pharmacy/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Letter-to-Congress-re-Canadian-Online-Pharmacies-2-10-17-final.pdf.

National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Position Paper on the Importation of Foreign Prescription Drugs. March 2003 (current as of 2017). https://nabp.pharmacy/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Importation-of-Prescription-Drugs-03-2003.pdf.

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