PHARMACEUTICAL ROULETTE | Our Porours Borders With Mexico and Canada

Millions of Americans Look Outside U.S. for Drugs

By Mary Pat Flaherty and Gilbert M. Gaul
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 23, 2003

Fifth of five articles

PORT OF ANDRADE, Winterhaven, Calif. -- William Brooks has a good job and good prescription drug benefits. He also has rosacea, a skin ailment he treats with an ointment. His employer's health plan picks up most of the cost, leaving him to pay only $14 when he fills his prescription.

But Brooks said he can buy the ointment for $6 -- and does -- "over there," jutting his thumb toward the narrow road into Los Algodones, Mexico, a few hundred feet away. "I seem to be getting the same thing," he said.

Brooks, 48, is one of millions of Americans who have turned to Mexico and other countries in search of bargain drugs.

What makes him different is this: He is the director at the Andrade port of entry for the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, in charge of stopping prescription drugs from illegally entering the country.

The port director embodies a national contradiction: Although U.S. law bans nearly all imports of foreign medications, Americans are bringing in those drugs in record numbers.

Mexico, Canada and other countries have become the discount pharmacies for many Americans, those looking simply to save money as well as the uninsured struggling to pay for their medications.

In the process, the nation's drug distribution chain is being breached, exposing consumers to risk and swamping regulators, according to state and federal records and interviews with dozens of federal agency officials, state investigators, academics and security specialists for the pharmaceutical industry.

Customs estimates 10 million U.S. citizens bring in medications at land borders each year. An additional 2 million packages of pharmaceuticals arrive annually by international mail from Thailand, India, South Africa and other points. Still more packages come from online pharmacies in Canada.

At peak season at Andrade, when snowbirds flock to the desert crossing west of Yuma, Ariz., 13,000 people a day return from Mexico, "and nearly everyone has medications," Brooks said. "The pharmaceuticals are absolutely the draw." In northern Mexico, farmacias edge out strip joints and cantinas on many of the main drags.

At San Ysidro, Calif., which abuts Tijuana, Mexico, 90 million people a year cross, leaving inspectors there with an average of five seconds to size up what travelers may have in their packages, supervisory inspector Joseph W. Misenhelter said. "Medications are only one of our concerns."

At the Washington Dulles International Airport mail site, between 10 and 15 tractor-trailer loads of international parcels arrive daily. Enforcement agents who peer through X-ray scanners and scour labels looking for pills and vials are "pulled a lot of ways," with terrorism -- not illegal pharmaceuticals -- as their first priority, Dulles chief inspector Hal Zagar said.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company