FOR MORE than a year, the Montgomery County Council has been trying to figure out a way to promote the importation of cheap prescription drugs from Canada for use by thousands of county employees and retirees. And for more than a year, the council has been given legal opinions saying that to do so would be prohibited by federal law. To date, those opinions have been issued by the Maryland attorney general's office, the County Council's own lawyer and two law firms retained by the school board, among others. The message is clear: It's time for the council to fold.
Instead, it is forging ahead. Council President Tom Perez plans to introduce legislation that would enable the importation of discount drugs from Canada not only for county employees but also for all county residents. Mr. Perez (D-Silver Spring) says he has already lined up at least six co-sponsors on Montgomery's nine-member council; the measure looks likely to pass easily, possibly with the support of County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who has embraced the goal of securing cheap drugs for county residents.
It's easy to sympathize with the council's purpose in pressing the issue as far as it has. A handful of states and cities, including Boston, have adopted legislation allowing the imports. Those states and cities have suffered no legal consequences -- not yet, anyway. Montgomery officials believe the county would save millions of dollars annually if employees had the right to fill long-term prescriptions online from Canadian mail-order pharmacies that the county has vetted for safety and reliability. Co-payments could also decline as a result of lower prices of imported drugs. From a national policy perspective, as we've said before, it's unwise to maintain a system by which Americans pay sharply higher drug prices than the rest of the world.
But whether or not the law banning prescription drug importations is right or fair, it's clear. As the various attorneys who have examined the issue have said, the county would incur a risk, including the possibility of expensive lawsuits or criminal prosecution, by going ahead with a policy that runs afoul of U.S. law. The school system is also at risk: The school board says it will follow suit if the county enacts legislation, but doing so in defiance of federal law could imperil significant amounts of federal funding.
Mr. Perez is an energetic council president whose concern for his constituents is genuine. He argues that whatever legal risk the county runs is minimal, since the Food and Drug Administration, having turned a blind eye to drug imports elsewhere in the country, would be unlikely to single out Montgomery. In the worst-case scenario, he says, the FDA would seek to shut down the county's program. Maybe. But the fact remains that the council is flirting with lawlessness. The right way to challenge federal legislation is to seek to overturn it, not to defy it.