This article is from the June 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Buying Medicines in the Farmacías of Mexico

by Robert B. Simmonds, Ph.D.

David Busch, a 23-year employee of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, sits in La Mesa State Penitentiary in Tijuana, expecting maybe this month to hear about his appeal of a judge’s decision, as allowed under Mexican law. Meanwhile, Mr. Busch just wants to get back to his quiet life in the three-bedroom house he shares with his wife and stepson in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. "If I had known this was going to happen, I could have just gone to Walgreen’s."

Mr. Busch had come to San Diego to train insurance agents, and one day, during the week before his training session was to begin, he stepped across the border into Tijuana to pick up some medications, all of which would have required a prescription in the United States. The laws are different in Mexico, he thought, and he would just do what hundreds of tourists do everyday...pick up some medications for his family in one of the farmacías that line Avenida Revolución in Tijuana, inexpensively and without the need for a prescription. This is one of the perks that tourists get when they cross the border, right?

He bought a supply of 13 items for $566.70, some antibiotics, antidepressants (Prozac and Paxil), a tranquilizer (Valium), appetite suppressants, a muscle relaxant, herpes cream and some blood pressure medicine. He showed the clerk a list and said that he didn’t want to do anything illegal. "¡No problema!" What he didn’t know was that Mexican authorities had this particular pharmacy under surveillance following an anonymous tip that it was illegally selling prescription medicines.

Mr. Busch was charged with drug trafficking. Authorities contend that he not only knowingly bought drugs without a prescription, but that he was planning to sell them. But Mr. Busch contends, "I was just trying to buy medications in a more convenient and inexpensive way. I thought I was in a different country with a different set of rules and I was in a pharmacy and the pharmacy would have the final say on what was OK and what wasn’t. Anybody, especially from as far away as Wisconsin, can make the same mistake."

The U.S. Consulate in Tijuana advises that Mexican federal police are increasingly cracking down on illegal sales of pharmaceuticals. Mexican pharmacies are required by law to turn in numbered prescriptions and sales records of controlled substances, such as Valium. Mexico, like the United States, requires a prescription for any medication used for diets, the nervous system or strong pain. A second category, including antidepressants, heart medicine, and blood pressure medication, technically requires the customer to show either a U.S. or Mexican prescription, but the pharmacist simply looks at the prescription and returns it to the customer. And, in reality, pharmacists will sell these medicines without even seeing evidence of a prescription, at no real risk to themselves or the customer.

A wide variety of high quality medications is available in Mexico, although quality guidelines are not as strict as they are in the United States, so one never really knows. For the most part, however, the medications are identical to those north of the border. And they are very inexpensive compared to U.S. prices for the same medications. Many drugs, like Retin-A cream, require a prescription in the United States, but are sold like Ben Gay in Mexico, and at a very reasonable price. As long as one knows the rules, there should be no problem.

Mr. Busch is behind bars for the first time in his life. He maintains his innocence, and he probably is very innocent. But he did not heed the guidelines, and he was not at all careful. Next time he’ll go to Walgreen’s.