ANNAPOLIS – Sen. Paul G. Pinsky’s bill to import prescription drugs from Canada was called an act of “civil disobedience” in a Wednesday hearing, even as pharmacists kicked off a campaign to discourage the illegal practice.
The Maryland Pharmacists Association and the Food and Drug Administration began handing out information Wednesday to warn citizens about the dangers of mail-ordering drugs from Canada.
The campaign will distribute posters, flyers and informational inserts to pharmacies across the state to battle the growing trend of drug importation that has catapulted as Internet use has expanded.
“We want consumers to know that they are in a buyer-beware situation, because we can’t guarantee the safety, or guarantee the quality or purity of these medications,” said Tom McGinnis, director of pharmacy affairs in the FDA’s office of policy.
The FDA is studying whether drug importation might be feasible in the future, but bringing prescription drugs into the country is still illegal, said McGinnis.
At the hearing for the Prince George’s Democrat’s bill, speakers said it’s easy to see why patients are turning to Canada for medicine. The country’s pricing policy and depleted currency have put prices for brand-name prescription drugs at as little as a sixth of the U.S. price.
“Since Congress is more interested in catering to the interests of the pharmaceutical industry than to the interests of American citizens, some civil disobedience is necessary, and this bill enables it,” said Kenneth Muir, legislative chairman for the Maryland Retired Teachers Association.
Re-importing US-made drugs into the country from Canada, bill supporters say, will put downward pressure on U.S. drug costs, which are causing senior citizens to choose between medication and food in some instances.
Having the state purchase drugs would insure that legitimate pharmacies are providing them, minimizing risk to individuals now buying their drugs over the Internet, said supporters.
But opponents of SB 167 fear lack of regulation could create a black market, with Americans getting different drugs than pharmacies might sell under Canadian or U.S. laws.
“One of the problems we’ve seen with dealing with Health Canada is their greatest concern is protecting the health of Canadians,” said McGinnis, adding American complaints are unlikely to get the attention they deserve.
Rick Roberts, of San Francisco, testified against loosening federal regulations. Roberts received counterfeit HIV drugs, despite current FDA regulations, and went through an arduous process to determine what he had taken and where it had come from.
“What I’m very afraid of,” he said, “is that if we open the door wide enough, we create a longer distribution chain and more opportunity for bad people to introduce (counterfeit) drugs into the system.”
Because the move is against federal law, opponents argue it would open the state up to substantial liability.
While civil liability might be a concern, it may be possible for the state to enact laws to immunize itself from injuries caused by the use of imported drugs, said Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe in a letter answering legal concerns of Delegate Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery.
Rowe said the greater concern is criminal liability for breaking the law, which risks fines and jail sentences for those involved.
One reason drugs are so expensive is Americans subsidize up to 80 percent of basic medical research and development costs, said Jerry Parrott, spokesman for Human Genome Sciences.
“The issue of drug pricing is an international trade issue and should be dealt with as such. Other developed countries must begin to pay their fare share,” said Parrott.
There are ways to obtain less expensive medications without sidestepping the law, said Richard D. Baylis, president of the Maryland Pharmacists Association. Consumers should ask pharmacists about generic or other alternatives and shop around.