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Buying Prescription Drugs Online: What You Need to Know

Woman at her laptop, holding a prescription drug in her hand

Rising medication costs can be difficult to manage. According to an American Association of Retired Persons study, total prescription drug spending in the U.S. is growing by over 10% a year. Some of the numbers are staggering. It's not unusual to hear of people paying several thousand dollars a month for medication, and the prices of some widely-used prescription drugs have increased by several hundred percent over the past few years.

It's no wonder that many people look to buying prescription drugs online. The hope, of course, is to find cheaper medicine. The risks include receiving counterfeit drugs, having financial information misused, and unknowingly breaking the law.

If you're thinking about buying prescription drugs online, you need to know what's legal and what isn't, and it's important to find a reputable online pharmacy.

No Buying Without a Prescription

The Controlled Substances Act is a federal law that requires prescriptions in order to buy certain drugs. A valid prescription requires a bona fide doctor-patient relationship. In plain terms, this means that a doctor has physically examined the patient in person, reviewed his or her medical history, and determined that the patient has a need for a particular drug.

Because online prescription drugs sellers cannot examine a patient in person, websites that promise "online prescriptions," and then deliver medication based on those (invalid) prescriptions, are violating the law. A questionnaire or other similar form of "examination" is insufficient. A patient who is considering purchasing medication online must first obtain a prescription from a doctor who conducts a face-to-face examination and reviews the patient's history and medical needs.

Under federal law, a valid prescription must contain all of the following information:

  • Date of issue
  • Patient's name and address
  • The doctor's name, address, and Drug Enforcement Agency registration number
  • Drug name and strength
  • Dosage of each pill
  • Quantity prescribed
  • Directions for use
  • Number of refills (if any) that are authorized
  • Doctor's signature

The Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act, a 2008 law named for a teenager who overdosed on medication prescribed and delivered after he filled out a questionnaire, requires an online pharmacy to identify its business name, its pharmacists, and any physicians associated with the website. The law also bans online pharmacies from referring customers to doctors who then write prescriptions without a proper examination.

Note that states may have their own laws regulating online prescription drugs sales. California, for example, requires an online pharmacy to maintain purchase and sale records, along with buyers' prescriptions, for three years. Texas created a database of prescription drug manufacturers, doctors, and pharmacies, to track sales and prevent patients from "doctor shopping" for medication.

Select Your Online Pharmacy Carefully

There are inherent risks with purchasing over the Internet. It may be hard to find information about the seller's credibility, returning the item may be difficult, and the buyer must trust that the seller will not misuse the buyer's financial information. These risks are compounded when buying prescription drugs online, as a defective product might seriously injure the buyer.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends searching for online pharmacies that meet certain safety criteria. These pharmacies are located in the U.S., have a licensed pharmacist available to answer questions, and provide buyers with contact information for questions and concerns.

Getting Legal Help

If you're thinking about buying prescription drugs online, it's important to understand the laws that apply to you and to choose a pharmacy carefully. If you have questions, you can search for a consumer protection attorney in your area through Findlaw.

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