Earlier this week, multiple news outlets “broke” the story that Americans who cross the border into Mexico to buy prescription drugs could be in danger. Lawmakers quickly reacted, urging the U.S. State Department to publish a travel advisory. “The State Department needs to warn Americans traveling to Mexico of the danger they face when purchasing pills from Mexican pharmacies,” urged Senator Edward J. Markey and Congressman David Trone in a joint letter to the State Department. What’s the basis of the screaming headlines? Is it safe to buy prescription drugs in Mexico or not?
The basis for many of these articles is a recently released study research paper. The study sent folks into four unnamed cities of northern Mexico, where they purchased pharmaceuticals from brick-and-mortar stores. These drugs were then tested, and in more than 25% of cases, were found to contain fentanyl or methamphetamine. Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid drug approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic. It’s also one that’s very easy to overdose and die from.
Obviously, the average American traveling south into Mexico to save money on prescription drugs isn’t particularly interested in overdosing on fentanyl. Each year, thousands travel into border cities like Tijuana south of San Diego, California, or Los Algodones, a few minutes away from Yuma, Arizona. Many of them are RVers who head south to avoid winter chill. The specter of dying from tainted drugs could certainly throw a different chill. But there’s more to the story.
Real focus of the study
The study, spearheaded by researchers at the UCLA School of Medicine, did, in fact, consider the possibility of “safe” drugs laced with stuff you probably don’t want to take—stuff that could (and in some cases has) killed people. But the focus of the study was on drugs that most U.S. and Canadian visitors wouldn’t normally be purchasing. In the study, researchers specifically asked to buy drugs like the pain killer Oxycodone, or Adderall. The latter is often prescribed for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but is often illicitly used as an athletic performance enhancer or for the strong feelings of euphoria it can give.
Study conductors did not attempt to purchase or test other drugs commonly bought by RVing tourists. No Lipitor. Nada Prilosec or Levitra. No “little blue pills.” Researchers were interested in chasing down information on drugs frequently bought and abused for “recreational” purposes. Unless you’re looking for “cheap thrills,” then, is it safe to buy prescription drugs in Mexico?
“Cannot ensure safety and effectiveness”
Here’s the official take from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “The FDA cannot ensure the safety and effectiveness of medicine purchased over the Internet from foreign sources, storefront businesses that offer to buy foreign medicine for you, or during trips outside the U.S. For these reasons, the FDA recommends only obtaining medicines from legal sources in the U.S.”
In 2004, the agency published an alert that mentioned sales of two drugs in Los Algodones. Americans shopping there bought drugs purported to be the statin Zocor, and the muscle spasm-reliever Soma, both of which turned out to be bogus. “Tests indicate that the counterfeit Zocor did not contain any active ingredient and that the counterfeit [Soma] differed in potency when compared to the authentic product.” The phony Soma had far less active medicine than the real thing, the FDA reported.
This resulted in a flurry of activity. Mexican authorities said they would track down the source of the phony meds and put an end to it. For Los Algodones, the lifeblood of the community is medical tourism. If phony meds were regularly sold, the reaction of outraged foreign buyers could kill the town. We’ve found little information that could point a valid finger at fake or less-than-effective medications being sold south of the border.
Maybe safe for health, but not necessarily for your wallet
Is it safe to buy prescription drugs in Mexico? We can’t advise yes or no. We can recommend you look at the available facts. If you’re looking for a cheap high, you may run a considerable risk of coming home in a coffin. If you’re looking for pharmaceuticals for legitimate use, it would seem you’re in much safer territory. However, there is one more thing you might want to do prior to plunking down your gringo dollars. Check out the discount drug programs here in the U.S.
As an example, when we prepared this story, you could buy the ED treatment, Sildenafil—the Viagra generic—30 tablets (20 milligram) for just $2.45 at Vons Pharmacy by using a deal through goodrx.com. Diabetics looking for Metformin could pick up 60 tablets (500 milligram) for just 92 cents at Albertson’s Sav-On using the same internet discounter, while the price in Mexico a month ago was $2.50. Troubled by an enlarged prostate? Does the doc want you to take Flomax? You can get the generic Tamsulosin, 30 caps (0.4 milligram) for just $4.01 at Rite-Aid. In Mexico, the “brand name” will cost you $29.00.
Sure, there’s a real lure going into Mexico. Shrimp tacos. Mexican cerveza. Mariachi bands. But you might be able to have a few more cervezas with the money you save buying some of those prescription drugs back in the states—and not have any worries whether your Viagra is effective or not.
I read much of this study, I quit after I found they used informants to find illicit drugs in areas where drug users went to buy illicit drugs. They never bought bottles of pills, they were buying one pill at a time and paying $25.00 to $35.00 per pill. This is cut from the study.
“This study is exploratory in nature, and the results should be considered hypothesis-generating and limited, requiring validation. Importantly, we did not seek to characterize or represent the prevalence of counterfeit medications across all pharmacies at the four cities of interest. Instead, we used ethnographic data to guide a purposive sampling approach that we believed was most likely to document the presence of counterfeit medications if they were present in any one of an array of intentionally selected micro-neighborhoods.”
I take Tramadol for chronic pain and have for years with no negative effects and somehow now I can only get one prescription a month. This makes travel almost impossible.
That’s exactly the problem. I guess they think in retirement we should just stay home or not leave town for more than 3, possibly 4 weeka time. All because weak minded people choose heroin which you obviously do not. Between God Syndrome pharmacists, and Governors putting shackles on doctors preventing their ability to have quality relationships with patients, very little option. Get the govt out of the examination room.
I know you’re trying to be witty in your writing, but can’t you say American dollars? The term “Gringo dollars” is offensive! I’m not a cheerleader for being PC, but to me that word is like fingernails on a chalk board.
I wonder if this “study” was funded by Big Pharma in the hopes of scaring the people away from purchasing drugs over the border. I know quite a few of my coworkers have discovered that they can buy the exact same medications for far less over there than they can here. It’s strange how we are expected to mindlessly pay more than the rest of the world just because we think that some government agency has provided a higher level of oversight than can be expected anywhere else.
Diane, thank you for allowing this conversation to grow naturally. It is one of the most important conversations, as the result of a very good and important article by Russ and Tina, that I have seen in my 5 months as a subscriber. People that don’t understand chronic pain or the lifesaving miracle that synthetic opiates have provided our scociety, will always roll their eyes at those in pain that do understand it. People like Skip, below, a disabled veteran that takes his meds only as prescribed, and functions in life at a high level because of those meds is a hero. For Skip to say it outloud in this forum takes courage. Thank you Skip, maybe the other 5,000 opioid users that read RVT will speak up, maybe not. It is a very personal journey. The 5,000 RVT readers that have a bluehaired pharmacy clerk roll their eyes in disgust at them once a month like you are a blight on society. Cont.
The 5,000 RVT readers that would never tell the neighbor, or a friend or even family they take Oxycontin for fear of being judged as a junkie.
18 surgeries in 9 years and twice offering testimony to the CDC for prescribing guideline improvements, even tho they don’t listen, DOES make me a bit of an authority. Skip, you are brave.
The media and pols make it into something it is not and now society judges harshly with no knowledge. Let good doctors be better doctors and remove the shackles that a fearful society has placed on an entire profession sworn to help others. Oxycontin is not heroin. Percocet is not Fentanyl. No one overdoses EVER under the prescribing supervision of a doctor when taken as prescribed.
May God Bless you all.
I am a retired Pharmacist and I started to write a long comment on how offensive and limited in understanding your comment is. I will simply say that your statement “no one overdoses EVER under a prescribing supervision of a doctor” speaks volumes about your lack of understanding. People do overdose on these drugs, even under a doctors care. Being a patient with a medical problem involving pain does not make you an expert on the issue, just a person with one perspective.
The number of overdoses when taking the medication as prescribed is in the 1 in 1,000,000 category and is generally a result of an interaction. You give yourself way too much credit.
You can cite no study, none, that shows patients overdosing at any measurable level, if at all, when taking a pain medication as prescribed. It is when they choose to take an extra pill, or lose count, or mix it with another substance or respiratory suppressant.
Being a retired pharmacist means you can count to 30, sometimes 60 and occasion180. It’s your job to count. It’s a doctor’s job to write.
By no study, call it current study (last 20 years). You are retired. The problems of 30 years ago are so very 30 years ago. Much knowledge and guidance for MME is now pretty solidily accepted. Was MME even a thing when you worked?
I commented below in a reaction to a few commenters, however, the article is about the safety of buying/obtaining prescriptions from drugstores/ pharmacies outside of the US.
The FDA and other governing/quality control organizations have strict guidelines for the compounding of prescription medications. They dictate what substances can or cannot be in the medication. When your doctor prescribes a certain medication, you can be very certain that the final product has gone through a series of testing and quality control procedures. The final product is then placed in a strict trial period and then a decision is made again whether or not to market the medication in its final form. This is a many year process. That is why US medications are typically more expensive when first marketed, before the generic form is available, and in its’ exact formula. The question of purity or strength of the exact formula is questioned when the drug is offered in other countries. Many insurance companies
cont’d from above:
will allow a 90 day or greater “vacation override” in the US. Additionally, if your doctor writes to your insurance company, they might allow your pharmacy to dispense a greater amount than a 30-60 or 90 day amount.
The article states that some medications are safe to purchase out of the country, but I would rather have a known safe and pure medication than one where I would have to worry of it were the correct dose, quality and drug.
From Impavid (having trouble posting): Interesting article and it’s great to protect U.S. citizens, but, not all snowbirds are from the U.S. A great number from Canada also winter south. Most Canadian provinces allow their citizens to be out of their home province for up to 7 months. Quote from Google: “Canadian visitors to the United States should be aware that their personal medication may be subject to U.S. drug importation laws and regulations. In general, personal importation of a 90-day supply of medication is allowed, but only if the drug is not available in the United States.” Where does that leave us? (cont’d.)
(cont’d., from Impavid) Drugs can’t be mailed to the U.S. from Canada so Canadian snowbirds must then seek a U.S. doctor (Canadian Rx are no good in the U.S.) for Rx needs. This likely cannot be claimed on travel insurance as it probably falls into the “pre-existing condition” category. The alternative is Mexican pharmacies. I take enough Rx with me for the length of time I’ll be south. If asked at the border I would certainly declare.
IMHO, paragraph 4, sentence #3, “in the study…” does not imply that everyone using prescribed “pain” medication is a substance abuser or thrill seeker as Cancelproof implies.
America is in a critical substance abuse period where overdoses are all too common. How do we as a Nation combat this epidemic? It has affected/impacted way too many families in the US alone. The opiate ABUSE (not prescribed) has caused overdoses, continuing abuse and millions of dollars in treatment and medical care costs.
I think that Russ and Tina did a terrific job in both the research and writing of the article, and kudos to RVTravel for spreading the word in this publication!
As our population and our shared demo ages, it is an important conversation. 23 year old children with weak minds are affecting seniors ability to access life saving medications. The government needs to get out of the way of good doctors. Let good doctors be better doctors. People dying on the streets from opioid overdoses are using heroin not percocet prescribed by a doctor.
I see how you got where you did in Para 4. Sentence 3. Its a coin toss but either way, I was not condemming the study. I was commenting on the editorialization in the article. It’s a fairly gratuitous target or comment in the current state of the Fentanyl crisis v. doctors writing scripts.
Thanks, Mike. Russ and Tiña (and our other writers) always do tons of research before writing an article, and are very careful to be as accurate as possible. Have a great day. 😀 –Diane at RVtravel.com
Thanks for the illuminating article Russ and Tina. You guys do great work! Please keep it up.
Sorry some folks were offended but then it seems there are always some who are offended by whatever is expressed these days.
I saw nothing in this article to minimize or disrespect people with chronic pain. But then I wasn’t looking for it either.
If I had chronic pain I would probably be angry most of the time. My Dear Mother had it , but she mostly just seemed sad.
It concerns me greatly how hard it is for people in real chronic pain to get prescription pain meds. Makes no sense to me.
Diane, you won’t offend me if you edit or delete this entirely if you think it’s just adding fuel. I sure appreciate the tight rope you folks have to walk and the fine work you all do.
You’re good, Ken. Thanks! Have a great (and pain-free!) day. 😀 -Diane at RVtravel.com
Your absolutely correct Ken. Doctor’s hands have been tied by Beaurocrats when it comes to dispensing, through a prescription, legal pain meds. Weak minded people that take any drug outside the parameter of the written prescription for thrill or high, are the problem. Your mother was obviously the exception, as are 2,000,000 chronic pain sufferers that have trouble finding Doctors willing to even write a script for fear of big brother pulling their license and ending a career. These are life saving drugs.
Either you don’t consider the risk or you consider the risk to be low for buying Mexico meds. Why are meds cheaper in Mexico? Anyone thinking pharmaceutical companies exist for your health aren’t in touch with reality. Company profits and addiction is the name of the game. If you can’t live without opioids, the right questions aren’t being asked.
Maybe one day we’ll visit Mexico, but our past and expected travel leaves us hundreds of miles north of the border.
Why continue to support the cartels?
Which cartels?..US based drug manufacturers?
The Fentanyl source of chemicals comes from China to Mexico which kills over 100,000 Americans a year and rising.
Nothing can be trusted when Mexico is involved.
Twice on your article, paragraph 5 and 9, you imply or that people seeking pain medications are looking for “cheap thrills” or a “cheap high”. I promise you that people sitting around your campfire are taking oxycodone to manage chronic pain and yiu just dont know. Unless you have had to offer assistance to cancer patients taking end of life level pain relievers like 60 or 80 mg oxycontin, or crush victim survivors that choose between living life in a wheelchair or upright with dignity, on 20 or 30 mg oxycontin or Fentanyl, you would be less flip in your cheap high or cheap thrill edification. I find it offensive to the over 2,000,000 Americans that use these drugs as prescribed, under a doctor’s care, including in some cases Fentanyl, in order to keep jobs, have independence and live life with dignity. Frankly, you owe them an apology.
On Mexico, don’t buy drugs in Mexico period. Maybe your penicillin or insulin is counterfeit too.
Or Veteran amputees functioning at a tremendously high level under a doctor’s care, taking meds AS PRESCRIBED.
Opioid addicts using heroin are not under a doctor’s care. Uninformed generalizations. No one overdoses taking an opiate as prescribed by legitimate doctor’s prescribing within guidelines. EVER.
I respectfully disagree with you, Cancelproof. I think they very clearly differentiated between the two groups of people throughout the article. Have a great day. 🍀 😀 –Diane
I didn’t read it that way. The only reference to “pain killers” I could find was through the actual words used, and I reference “cheap thrill” or “cheap high”.
Not trying to be argumentative tho. Perhaps you can point out the nuance I missed. Where it said or implied ‘if your looking to fill your doctor prescribed pain medications, don’t’ or something that possibly legitimatizes the use of opioids for many people v. cheap thrill, cheap high that was stated so clearly.
It’s a touchy subject for over 2,000,000 Americans that are compared to junkies everyday, being placed in to a tough societal category, so if I misread it or I skewed it one way or the other, it is because I accidentally took my dog’s Ambien this morning.
No problem, Cancelproof. We’ll just let things stand as is. Folks can interpret the article however they wish, but I know Russ did not intend to imply anything negative for everyone on prescribed pain medications. Rather than pain meds, I think I could have used some Ambien last night. Sure didn’t get enough sleep and my brain doesn’t feel like it’s fully functioning. Maybe a little sunshine and fresh air will wake me up. Either that or the adrenaline better hurry up and kick in. Lots of work to do today. Take care, and have a Guinness for me. 😀 -Diane
Sorry Diane I have to agree with cancelproof. I a disable vet take medication to control pain prescribed by a physician and only as prescribed. Don’t use any other medication. This allows myself to function daily to normal. Maybe if written “there could be some persons using for other purposes you might strongly consider not purchasing…”. It’s just a play in wording. It is a very touch subject with us on correct use without out assumptions. Thanks for doing a great job in bring the article forward to us.
Iam In Complete Agreement With Cancelproof As Well….