Importing prescription drugs from Canada – which is being considered at the State Capitol – seems like a simple route to provide patients with cheaper drugs. File this bill under “too good to be true,” because I experienced firsthand the dangers of counterfeit, imported drugs, and was critically ill for months as we sought to uncover the source of my illness.
My case is just like that of many Coloradans, and I raise these warning signs to prevent others across our state from facing the health problems I faced from fake imported drugs. Like millions of Americans, I suffer from severe allergies that require me to be on a constant regimen of expensive prescription medications. My doctor suggested I could save money – and trips to the pharmacy – if I bought my drugs from a Canadian online pharmacy using a prescription he gave me. It all sounded great to me.
When the package arrived, there were no indications that the pills were anything but the very same medication I had been purchasing in the Denver area.
Yet, as I was about to learn – the hard way – they were starkly and dangerously different.
Very soon after I started taking the imported drugs, I became severely ill with migraines, gastrointestinal issues and other symptoms. My doctors were completely mystified, and since I was supposedly taking the same medicine that had been prescribed for me, no one suspected my imported drugs.
After weeks of these terrible health problems, it occurred to me that my symptoms started soon after I received the package of pills from Canada. As I learned of the horror stories people have experienced from imported drugs, I stopped taking them. My symptoms went away.
Fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones. My symptoms, although awful and debilitating, weren’t life threatening. I was able to discover that the pills were fake and stop taking them, and I have no lasting health effects from these pills.
Others who have innocently taken what they thought were common painkillers, for example, end up dead because even half a pill of a counterfeit painkiller, often laced with fentanyl, can quickly kill. Sadly, we hear about these tragedies week after week, and the fight against counterfeiters consumes an increasing amount of resources from both the medical and law enforcement communities.
This serious, often cleverly hidden, threat to Coloradans like me should give pause to legislators and our new governor before they enact Senate Bill 5, which would create an importation program. While the bill claims to require drug safety for Colorado consumers, the fact is that not neither our federal government nor the Canadian government – much less a small state agency – will guarantee that imported drugs are safe.
As in my case, Coloradans will have no definitive knowledge of where their imported drugs originated. The drugs would be imported through Canada, not necessarily from Canada. The drugs that you purchase could start their journey to your home from counterfeit “pill mills” in Asia that turn out thousands of fake pills daily. Canadian health officials have said on the record that they have no way to guarantee the quality, safety or effectiveness of medicines that are shipped through their country to the U.S. – and have no intention of starting.
In recent years, federal secretaries of health and human services (HHS) – appointed by presidents of both parties – have had the opportunity to certify that drugs imported through Canada are safe before a nationwide importation program can be launched. Not a single HHS secretary has been able to make this certification. How can we imagine that the director of one state agency in one state can do a more thorough job and reach a conclusion about drug safety when the HHS cannot?
Colorado leaders who are advocating for drug importation are surely doing so in the hope of making it easier and cheaper for patients to get prescription drugs – just like my doctor did for me. But armed with the facts that buying imported drugs is very risky, and potentially life-threatening, lawmakers should abandon this legislation and continue the search for solutions that will lower drug costs while protecting the health and safety of Colorado patients. I wouldn’t wish what I suffered from fake, imported drugs on anyone.
Ali Schroer, a licensed clinical social worker, is a resident of Denver.