Quest for cheaper drugs can end in a Mexican jail...
Police crack down on Americans who buy medications
without local prescriptions
TIJUANA, September 8, 2004 — Californians shopping for cheaper
prescription drugs may have gotten a break when the Legislature voted to
ease access to low-cost medicines from Canada, but south of the border,
bargain-hunters can pay an unexpected, traumatic cost — time in a
Since early last year, at least 67 Americans have been jailed here for
buying medicines without a prescription from a Mexican doctor. Most
recently, a 53-year-old U.S. woman was arrested here in July and spent a
day in jail after buying 90 Valium tablets, a standard prescription
amount, without the requisite Mexican doctor's order.
Drug shoppers in Mexico are on the same quest for discounts that has
driven many Californians to buy mail-order medications from Canada,
where prices also can be dramatically lower.
Late last month, days after a group of elderly Southern Californian
protesters chartered a train called the "Rx Express" to buy medicines in
Vancouver, the California Legislature gave final approval to a package
of bills allowing cheaper drug imports from Canada. The legislation is
still being considered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
To the south, thousands of Americans, mostly senior citizens, cross the
border daily to buy prescription drugs at places such as Tijuana and
Algodones on the California border, Nogales south of Arizona and Ciudad
Juarez opposite El Paso. They are pursuing savings of up to 75% on
medicines ranging from antibiotics and antidepressants to heart
medication and chemotherapy agents.
Mexican druggists who sell to Americans without a prescription are also
breaking the law, but the police more frequently target the customers,
knowing they are easy arrests and in many cases will be only too willing
to pay bribes of hundreds of dollars to avoid jail.
Facing a sharp decline in tourism in recent months, some Tijuana
pharmacists are mounting a campaign to warn visitors of the hazards of
buying drugs without prescriptions — and to repair Tijuana's image.
"Americans come here with no idea that they need a prescription, a
Mexican prescription, to get their medicines," said Ignacio Romo
Calderon, president of the Tijuana Pharmacists Assn.
"We are trying to educate the tourists because [the arrests] have given
the city a bad name."
Pharmacies have multiplied here to more than 1,300 — three times the
number in San Diego, with roughly the same population — as Mexico
becomes known as an alternative to cost-conscious U.S. consumers.
Law-abiding druggists along Pharmacy Row will either refuse to sell the
drugs or send consumers to one of the many doctor's offices here where
physicians are known to write prescriptions for $40.
Some of the buyers arrested here obviously intended to traffic the
suspiciously large quantities of drugs they bought, officials at the
U.S. Consulate here said.
A Seattle man was arrested in September 2003 after allegedly buying more
than 6,000 pills of medications, including controlled substances. Two
clerks at Tijuana's Trip Pharmacy, where the purchases were made, were
But most trans-border consumers are elderly Americans who simply are
buying medicines for their own ailments or those of family members. Most
walk into the Mexican pharmacies with a U.S. prescription or with none
Alfonso Gonzalez, a San Diego retiree, drives to Tijuana every month to
buy eye drops for his glaucoma. He pays $20 for the same monthly supply
of drops that in San Diego costs $90. That's a considerable savings for
70-year-old Gonzalez and his wife, who subsist on the $1,100 a month
they receive in Social Security benefits.
"We retirees are the ones who suffer the most because the drug business
is so controlled in the United States. It's why you never see a price
reduction," said Gonzalez, who said that Medicare did not cover the cost
of his drops, which he said were vital in keeping his eyesight.
He said the Tijuana pharmacy he patronized sold him his drops without a
Although police are likely to look the other way a case such as
Gonzalez's eyedrops, they can come down hard on those who buy controlled
substances, such as those known by their U.S. brand names Valium,
Ritalin, Percodan and Darvon.
The average length of jail time is 48 hours.
Although most of those arrested are released after producing
documentation proving a medical need, those who can't or who are
suspected of buying drugs with trafficking in mind can be sentenced to
In the most highly publicized case here, Dawn Marie Wilson, 48, received
a five-year term for buying a variety of prescription drugs in Baja
California last year, including anti- epilepsy medication and Valium.
Through her lawyer, she said she did not buy all the drugs listed by
Mexican authorities in her court papers. Wilson is now in an Ensenada
jail but is scheduled to be transferred to U.S. custody this month.
Raymond Lindell, 66, of Phoenix was held in a Nogales jail for eight
weeks this year after being caught with 270 Valium pills he had bought
for his wife. Lindell argued that he went to Mexico to buy the drugs
after his insurer stopped reimbursing him and his wife for the cost of
In a notorious case, an Iowa woman was raped while in custody late last
year after Mexican police arrested her and her husband for possession of
Ritalin they had bought in Tijuana for their 9-year-old son.
The arrests of U.S. shoppers have contributed to Tijuana's dubious
status as the place where more Americans are arrested — an average of
more than seven a day — than in any other foreign city with a consular
presence. Most arrests are for drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
Baja California accounts for 20% of all arrests of U.S. nationals on
foreign soil each year.