Using a Canadian Online Pharmacy: The Solution to America's High Prescription Drug Prices?

written by Skye Sherman - May 6, 2019

Photo Credit: by Skye Sherman
Photo Credit: by Skye Sherman

Why do Americans choose to order drugs online from pharmacies in Canada? What problem are they trying to solve and what solution does a Canadian pharmacy offer? And is this exchange even legal? In this post, we’ll review all of these questions and more. If you’ve ever wondered about ordering your prescription medications online from a Canadian pharmacy, you’ve come to the right place.

The Problem

In basic terms, the problem in America is that the prices on prescription drugs are sometimes exorbitant. People may need a certain prescription medication for something but cannot afford it due to the extremely high price that the pharmaceutical companies have set on it. But in Canada, the same price on the exact same drug is often a fraction of the price. Residents of Maine, because of their proximity, can easily import drugs from Canada in order to stay healthy.

Currently, according to The Washington Free Beacon, there is “a bill working its way through the Florida state legislature is the latest effort to use Canadian prescription drugs to cap prices.” It’s common knowledge that drugs are available for cheaper in Canada, and more and more states are moving to make use of this.

Sometimes, the easiest way to understand a problem is to view it in context. Viewing it through a humane lens or hearing someone’s personal story can help you understand just how dire the situation is for some people.

Take this personal anecdote for example. Mike Riggs, a reporter at Reason, shares his own story.

Every day for the last three years, I’ve started my morning with four prescription pills that cost roughly $11 each. I say “roughly” because the price fluctuates. The last time I filled a 90-day prescription, the full cost was $4,037. Sometimes, a 90-day refill costs hundreds of dollars less. But it’s always expensive enough for one of the pharmacy techs at my local Rite Aid to let out a whistle when I tell them what I need to pick up.

His story is one of thousands just like it. People all across America have experienced for themselves the negative repercussions of Big Pharma’s monopolies and greed. Chances are, you know someone like Mike Riggs or maybe even have a similar situation for yourself. When drug prices are extorted and the capitalistic laws of supply and demand are extorted, the average consumer is the one who suffers most.

In fact, vulnerable citizens like the elderly are the most at risk. In one case, aging residents of Maine made headlines when they began boarding buses bound for Canada in order to get the prescriptions they needed. An article in the Press Herald explains, “It was scandalous in those days to hear from people who would cut their pills in half instead of taking the prescribed dose, or choose between filling a prescription and buying food while the drugmakers raked in profits.”

Another medical device that drew a lot of attention in the press in the past few years is the Epi-Pen. This life saving device is not an elective or vain purchase—for millions of people, it is a medical necessity that can save them from shock if they encounter something to which they are highly allergic.

But all of a sudden, the price of a simple Epi-Pen grew by so many hundreds of dollars that people could no longer afford to have one of these on their person at all times in case of an emergency. An Epi-Pen is not something you can skip a dose of or just take when you feel like it—it delivers the difference between life or death if a person ever finds him or herself in a situation that warrants its use.

So what’s the solution in situations like this? Let’s see what Mike Riggs chose to do.

About a year ago, someone suggested I check out the prices for this drug in Canada. My medicine, which is called Lialda, turns out to cost thousands of dollars less just 500 miles north of D.C. [One] Canadian online pharmacy sells a 90-day supply of Lialda for $710, while [another] sells it for $734.

What’s the reason behind this discrepancy? How does the same exact drug cost a fraction of the price in Canada than it does in the United States?

The simple answer is that in Canada, the government is in charge of setting prices for all drugs with a patent. A review board called Canada’s Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) allows makers of pharmaceuticals to submit a proposal with what they feel they should charge and a report with sales information and any other relevant factors to consider when determining the price of a drug.

The PMPRB then compares the drug maker’s price and proposal to prices of similar medications in countries like Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The two parties negotiate a reasonable price and then the drug goes to market.

However, in the free market of the U.S., this is not how things work. No review boards tell the drug makers how much they can charge. Instead, pharmaceutical companies can charge as much as the market will “allow.” What a person pays for anything in the medical world can vary widely depending on their insurance plan, the type of drug they need, and more. And pharmaceutical companies aren’t eager to leave money on the table when they don’t have to.

Of course, when it comes to the world of medications and prescriptions, the market is not exactly reporting what they want to buy or can afford. It is telling drug makers what they must purchase or have to take to stay alive and be well. That’s why many people believe it’s not fair to extort such high prices just because the market seems to demand it. There may be a huge need for a drug, but that doesn’t mean patients can afford to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for it.

What Solution Do Canadian Online Pharmacies Offer?

Based on the information shared above, it’s easier to understand why people would turn to a certified Canadian pharmacy.

The cost effective solution in Canada is due to the fact that in Canada, pharmaceutical companies cannot charge as much as they’d like to. Drugs tend to cost less there because the government would not approve a high price on a drug that does not seem like an appropriate price to the review board.

But in America, there is no gatekeeper or rule maker when it comes to setting drug prices. Consumers will have to pay whatever the pharmaceutical companies decide they can get away with charging. That’s why ordering prescription drugs from a country that has more regulations in place when it comes to prices can be a better solution for people who need medications but cannot afford them in America.

A statistic cited in The Guardian states that “25% of people say they are likely to use online pharmacies in [the] future.”

Is This Legal?

Ordering prescriptions online from an approved Canadian pharmacy can be a confusing subject to discuss when it comes to the legality of the act. Many people hear about friends or family importing cheap, high quality prescriptions from licensed pharmacies in other countries. Speaking in technical terms, the answer is basically black and white, but when it comes to the question of whether doing so is morally acceptable, ordering medications from Canada is a bit of a gray area for some people.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, “In most circumstances, it is illegal for individuals to import drugs into the United States for personal use. This is because drugs from other countries that are available for purchase by individuals often have not been approved by FDA for use and sale in the United States.”

Why is that? If a licensed Canadian pharmacy sells substances that are just as high of quality to its own citizens, why can’t residents of the United States take advantage of the opportunity to secure their prescriptions for a lower price? The FDA’s site goes on to explain, “FDA cannot ensure the safety and effectiveness of drugs that it has not approved.”

In other words, the FDA understands the predicament that many people are in when it comes to high prescription drug prices in the United States, but it cannot permit such activity across international borders because their first duty is to protect their own citizens. Without their own oversight as the regulatory board overseeing prescription drugs in Canada, the FDA can make no promises and assume no responsibility to U.S. citizens when it comes to substances they choose to acquire and ingest.

So when it comes to whether or not ordering prescriptions from an online Canadian pharmacy is legal, things seem pretty cut and dry. But are they? Why do people opt to take this route at all if the FDA seems to clearly state that doing so might not be legal?

Well, the answer is that there are some loopholes of sorts. As explained above, the main reason that the FDA cannot give their seal of approval to importing prescriptions from Canada is that they cannot guarantee the safety or quality of the medications. Still, the facts remain that Canada is a bustling developed country that wants to provide the same quality of life to its citizens that America does. Their prescriptions, in most cases, likely offer the same high quality assurance that we expect here in the United States. Plus, as an article in Politifact states, “Under Canadian law, exporters must attest that the item is legal and complies with inspections of the destination country.”

And the situation for many people is dire. With exponential increases in drug prices in recent years, as well as the flaws in America’s health care system, some people feel they have no other choice but to look for options over the border.

Think about it: if the U.S. were to legally permit its citizens to import their prescriptions from countries that offer them for cheaper, then the American market would essentially be forced to compete with these foreign markets. It would force drug companies to lower their prices and bring them down to the average standard set by other countries, governments, and drug markets.

The FDA website goes on to explain that there are certain reasons or circumstances for which people who order from an approved online Canadian pharmacy likely will not experience legal repercussions.

After explaining that importing drugs from Canada could not be legal, the FDA website states:

“FDA, however, has a policy explaining that it typically does not object to personal imports of drugs that FDA has not approved under certain circumstances, including the following situation:

- The drug is for use for a serious condition for which effective treatment is not available in the United States;

- There is no commercialization or promotion of the drug to U.S. residents;

- The drug is considered not to represent an unreasonable risk;

- The individual importing the drug verifies in writing that it is for his or her own use, and provides contact information for the doctor providing treatment or shows the product is for the continuation of treatment begun in a foreign country; and

- Generally, not more than a 3-month supply of the drug is imported.”

In other words, while in many cases it technically may not be legal, it is not common for the FDA to pursue legal action against a person importing prescriptions for themselves in personal quantities. One Reddit user puts it this way: “Although it’s illegal, those particular laws are seldom enforced.”

Mike Riggs, whose personal story was shared above, summarizes the situation by stating, “Buying prescription drugs from a Canadian website isn’t legal, but many Americans do it anyway because of the government’s unofficial ‘non-enforcement policy’ for personal imports. First publicized in 1998, the policy basically says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will focus its enforcement efforts on unapproved imported drugs intended for commercial markets here in the U.S., and that patients who order personal amounts of non-controlled substances from foreign pharmacies will generally go unharassed.”

In other words, it seems that the FDA is not too concerned with individuals ordering their own prescriptions for personal use from an online Canadian pharmacy.

We are not able to offer legal advice nor do we suggest one course of action or the other. Each person must decide for himself or herself what he or she is comfortable with doing, and we assume no responsibility for people who do things that may not be legal. We recommend consulting a lawyer or some other sort of legal help if you feel unsure or would like to explore your options when it comes to the legality of your actions.

How Can I Ensure I’m Ordering from a Legitimate Pharmacy?

Want to try ordering your prescriptions from an online Canadian pharmacy? Before you place an order, you should make sure that the pharmacy or establishment you’re ordering from is legitimate.

Check to make sure that, like us, the pharmacy is accredited and only sells quality medications that come from trusted sources. We are an approved Canadian pharmacy and have been providing our customers with quality products and excellent prices since 2006. To learn more, we invite you to visit our About Us page. Best of all, we offer free shipping to the U.S.!

For example, we are a CIPA member and a Certified Canadian International Pharmacy. We are proud to participate in a program that requires members to adhere to exceptional quality standards and all regulatory requirements in the country of the dispensing pharmacy. We only use dispensaries or affiliate pharmacies that have also been CIPA inspected.

We recommend supporting causes like Campaign for Personal Drug Importation if you’d like to encourage lawmakers to loosen restrictions and provide the American people easier access to the medications they need.


Skye Sherman is a professional writer who has been published in numerous local and international outlets. She has also worked for a wellness company and is very familiar with the healthcare industry. She holds a degree from a Florida university.


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While the above article is based on thorough research, we do not claim to offer a substitute for medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider. The article was written for information and educational purposes only. We aim to provide helpful information to our readers, but cannot provide a treatment, diagnosis, or consultation of any sort, and we are in no way indicating that any particular drug is safe or appropriate for you and your individual needs. To receive professional medical attention, you must see a doctor.