Is It Legal to Buy Other Prescription Drugs Online?

How Telemedicine Changed Prescribing Practices

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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.

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Online Prescribers

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 is a big mistake. To purchase a prescription drug, the most important requirement is that you have an authentic 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, as the purchaser, has a relationship with the doctor who writes the prescription. The pharmacy must require your doctor's signature on a prescription.

Some online pharmacies will tell you that their in-house "doctor" can write you a prescription without seeing you in person. This is a clear violation of the law as the "doctor" has no basis by which to make a diagnosis.

Even a detailed questionnaire offered by some online pharmacies fails to meet even the most basic standards for diagnostic competency. In short, it is a scam.

Telemedicine Doctors

With that being said, the advent of telemedicine is fast-changing how we view the medical diagnostic process. In the past, it was inferred that diagnoses could only be made by physically examining a patient.

With telemedicine, doctors (many of whom are employed by health insurers) can make reasonable diagnoses by conducting an "examination" over your laptop or smartphone.

As opposed to online "doctors" who are not certified to practice online medicine, telemedicine doctors are board-certified practitioners who usually have to gain accreditation from a state governing body. It has been estimated that 76% of U.S. hospitals use video or another kind of technology to connect with patients and consulting practitioners.

So vastly have medical practices changed that organizations like the Federation of State Medical Boards endorse regulations allowing telemedicine doctors to write prescriptions as long as certain technical and medical criteria are met.

That doesn't mean that anything can be prescribed. Most telemedicine doctors will not prescribe drugs that require an in-person exam, including Viagra and sleep aids.

The Center for Connected Health Policy has created a guide of telehealth-related policies, laws, and regulations for all 50 states and the District of Columbia (the guide is focused on Medicaid, but information on managed care is provided when available. The most common types of prescriptions telemedicine doctors can write include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antifungals
  • Allergy medications
  • Oral contraceptive
  • Decongestant nasal sprays
  • High blood pressure medications
  • Cholesterol-lowering drugs

Ensuring a Purchase Is Legal

Be sure you can answer all these questions with a yes, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) 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 rules for purchasing from foreign pharmacies specify that a drug may be exported into the United States if all three of the following conditions are met:

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

According to the American Bar Association, the illegal import of a drug may be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year imprisonment and a $100,000 fine irrespective of whether you knew it was a crime.

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  1. U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Agency. Diversion Control Division. Section IX - valid prescription requirements.

  2. Drug Enforcement Administration, Diversion Control Division. Report suspected unlawful sales of pharmaceutical drugs on the internet. Updated 2019.

  3. American Hospital Association. Fact sheet: telehealth. Updated February 2019.

  4. Federation of State Medical Boards. Model policy for the appropriate use of telemedicine technologies in the practice of medicine. April 2014.

  5. The Center for Connected Health Policy. State telehealth laws & reimbursement policies. Fall 2019.

  6. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. How to buy medicines safely from an online pharmacy. Updated January 25, 2018.

  7. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Imported drugs raise safety concerns. Updated March 1, 2018.

  8. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Importations of drugs. Updated September 25, 2015.

  9. American Bar Association. Importing prescription drugs remains risky business due to FDA and DEA regulation. Updated March 1, 2018.

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