Using an Online Pharmacy to Obtain Prescription Drugs


Although the government has attempted to crack down on illegitimate online pharmacies, consumers must be aware of the possible problems associated with obtaining an online prescription for a medication, or purchasing a drug online. These issues become even more significant when ordering from overseas pharmacies, including those in Mexico.

Are Online Pharmacies Legal?

There are a number of large, legitimate online pharmacies that often work hand-in-hand with health insurance companies in order to deliver medications to members of insurance plans safely and conveniently. These pharmacies don't prescribe the medication, but instead ship medication based upon a prescription from your treating physician. The insurance company can save money by working through such a pharmacy by negotiating discount pricing on medications.

For international purchases of medications, a United States resident with a valid prescription may bring back into the United States up to ninety (90) days supply of a medication for personal use. While it was historically possible to order such medicines over the Internet, regulations now require that the medications be brought back in person and exclude the import of most controlled substances. While a number of online pharmacies continue to operate from overseas locations, if their shipments of medicine into the United States are detected the medication will be seized.

Dubious online pharmacies based in the U.S. largely suspended their operations due to a decision by the FDA to act against online pharmacies that engage in the online prescription of controlled substances. In addition, the FDA and DEA require that an individual be examined in person by the prescribing physician before receiving certain controlled substances from an online pharmacy, as opposed to completing an online questionnaire that is later reviewed by a doctor.

Why Do People Use Online Pharmacies?

There are two leading reasons why people choose to obtain prescription drugs online:

  • Cost - Due to the economics of health care in the United States, consumers often must pay a significantly higher price for medication than consumers in other countries. Many domestic online pharmacies offer cost savings as compared to the corner drugstore, so somebody without insurance may want to compare prices and explore online options.

  • Privacy - Some people prefer to obtain their prescriptions online, even if at a higher cost, instead of consulting a doctor in person about issues such as depression, hair loss, or erectile dysfunction.

A third reason, especially relevant to both international transactions and the crack-down on the sale of controlled substances online and across borders, is that some people want to obtain medications for recreational purposes.

For many years, consumers near Canada have driven across the border to buy their drugs at considerable savings from Canadian pharmacies. Canadian pharmacies typically require proof of identity and a valid prescription. Unless issued by a doctor who is also licensed to practice medicine in Canada, U.S. prescriptions will be reissued by a Canadian doctor.

U.S. consumers near the Mexican border have also historically crossed the border to make drug purchases from Mexican pharmacies, but special concerns raised by purchasing drugs from a Mexican pharmacy. You risk that you may be purchasing counterfeit medications, or that you'll be sold medications that have not been properly stored or are expired.

Are Online Pharmacies Always Cheaper?

It is usually possible to obtain savings by purchasing prescription drugs online, even from a major U.S. pharmacy, when you have a prescription issued to you in person. It is usually not cheaper to obtain medications through an online prescription service, as those services usually mark up the price of medications substantially even when nominally offering a "free" prescription. Their mark-up may be comparable to the cost of an in-person medical examination, and may significantly exceed that cost when refills will be required.

In some cases the online service will be fraudulent or be based overseas and not care if your shipment actually reaches you, or perhaps not even send the medication you purchase.

Also, as noted above, price cannot always be the leading consideration. If you don't know that you will be receiving the actual medication that was prescribed for you, you must put safety ahead of price.

For additional information, please see these associated articles:

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was first published on Jul 1, 2003, and was last reviewed or amended on Sep 12, 2014.