Is it Legal to Buy Antibiotics or Other Drugs Online?

online pharmacies require due diligence
If you take time to check out the pharmacy you order from, it will protect you from a scam. Getty Images - Terry Vine

The answer to the question whether it is legal to buy prescription drugs from online pharmacies is simple: it depends.

Ordering drugs online and getting them delivered by mail may be legal if certain requirements are met. These requirements range from ones you must fulfill to those that must be met by the business you're ordering from.

Once you are confident that these legal requirements can be met, and you know the pharmacy you've chosen is safe, then it may be time to purchase your prescription drugs from an online pharmacy.

Your Prescription

No doubt you've seen ads and have received emails that claim NO PRESCRIPTION NEEDED! or BUY ___ (fill in the name of a drug) __ WITHOUT A PRESCRIPTION! Beware. Ordering from such a pharmacy (if it even truly is a pharmacy) is a big mistake.

To purchase a prescription drug, the most important requirement is that you have a real prescription to give to the pharmacy. By U.S. federal law, in order to sell you a prescription drug, any pharmacy must be able to prove that you, the purchaser, has a relationship with the doctor who writes the prescription. If they sell you a drug without requiring your doctor's signature on a prescription or if their "doctor" has written a prescription for you even if that doctor has never seen you in person, then you and the pharmacy are in violation of the law. That can mean prison.

Some pharmacies that claim you don't need a prescription will try to get around the requirement by giving you a questionnaire to fill out.

Then, based on your answers to the questionnaire, they will claim their own doctor will diagnose you and prescribe the drug you "need" (meaning the one you requested.)

Don't let them fool you. The law says you must have seen the prescribing doctor in person. If their "doctor" (how do you know they have a doctor on staff?) prescribes a drug for you, it's illegal.

Foreign Pharmacies

It's illegal for Americans to order drugs from any pharmacy located outside the United States, including Canada or Mexico. This is a law imposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); in some circumstances, that law may be overlooked and not enforced. Sometimes the FDA looks the other way. Learn more about the FDA's rules for purchasing from foreign pharmacies, and the potential non-enforcement of those rules.

Additional considerations for making sure your online drug purchase is legal:

Be sure you can answer all these questions with a yes, according to FDA, Federal Trade Commission, and Drug Enforcement Agency requirements:

Does the pharmacy ask for a prescription? As described above, you must supply a bona fide, doctor-signed prescription. A questionnaire is not good enough.

Is the pharmacy licensed in the state in which it is located? Find your state's Board of Pharmacy to determine its licensing. If it is not licensed there, or if you can't find its location, then it may be offshore, located in another country. Learn more about purchasing drugs from foreign pharmacies.

Do they offer an opportunity to have a phone conversation with a pharmacist? Note - that does not ask whether there is a toll-free number.

It asks whether there is a pharmacist available to consult with. Do not order a drug from an online drug store until you have dialed that phone number and spoken to the pharmacist, even if you have to ask (what you consider) a lame question. The key is confirming there is a bona fide pharmacist on staff.

Once you are certain your purchase will be legal, or if you want to be sure you can locate a pharmacy that can legally sell you a prescription drug, learn more about how to safely and legally purchase drugs from an online pharmacy.