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

Ordering prescription 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. Learn the steps to ensure you are ordering from a legitimate ​online pharmacy with a valid prescription.

Do You Have a Valid Prescription?

No doubt you've seen ads and have received emails that claim no prescription is needed to buy a name-brand drug.

Ordering from such a pharmacy (if it 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. The pharmacy must require your doctor's signature on a prescription.

If you don't have a prescription, some online pharmacies will tell you it is sufficient for their in-house "doctor" to write a prescription without seeing you in person. However, this is a violation of the law by both you and the pharmacy.

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 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" prescribes a drug for you, it's illegal.

Steps to Ensure Your Online Prescription 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.
  • Do they offer an opportunity to have a phone conversation with a pharmacist? It's not enough to have a toll-free number, you need to be able to speak to a pharmacist. Do not order a drug from an online drugstore 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 the pharmacy is legitimate and you have a valid prescription from your doctor, you can legally purchase drugs from an online pharmacy.

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.

The FDA's rules for purchasing from foreign pharmacies specifies all three of these conditions must apply:

  • The drug is not yet approved in the U.S. but is prescribed for a serious condition for which there is no equivalent at home.
  • The amount being imported is no more than a three-month supply.
  • The drug is declared at Customs with the appropriate prescription or documentation.

Sources:

Know Your Online Pharmacy. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/BuyingMedicinesOvertheInternet/BeSafeRxKnowYourOnlinePharmacy/ucm318487.htm.

Personal Importation. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/ImportProgram/ImportBasics/ucm432661.htm