Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Buying Prescription Drugs Online: What You Need to Know

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

Buying prescription drugs online can be convenient. Yet, you might face a higher risk than regular online shopping. You could run into toxic counterfeit medicines, scams, and even criminal charges.

Many customers hope that buying medicine online will save them money. Sellers often claim to offer cheaper prices to compete with large pharmaceutical corporations. Online pharmacies can also improve access to medications that are hard to get locally. Plus, this option can be more discreet than visiting a pharmacy.

If you're considering buying your medications online, you need to know what's legal and what isn't. You'll also need to find a reputable online pharmacy.

Which Prescription Drugs Can I Legally Buy Online?

With a valid prescription, you can buy almost any medication online through a licensed pharmacy. Some controlled substances (Schedule I drugs) are always illegal to buy online or at a regular pharmacy because they aren't approved for medical use.

Some of the common prescription medications that consumers order online include:

  • Antidepressants and other mental health medications, such as Prozac and Effexor
  • Dermatology pharmaceuticals with more potent active ingredients than OTC products
  • Erectile dysfunction medication, such as Viagra
  • Birth control pills
  • Emergency contraception and medical abortion pills
  • Analog insulin
  • Emergency overdose treatments, such as Narcan (Naloxone)

You can also buy over-the-counter (OTC) medications through internet pharmacies and retailers. Though OTC medications don't need a prescription, keep in mind that shopping for them online can still be dangerous.

Is It Safe To Buy Medication Online?

It depends. There are inherent risks with purchasing over the internet, but it's possible to buy prescription drugs online safely. Protecting yourself starts with finding a safe and reputable seller.

Ordering medicine over the internet can involve challenges, such as:

  • Finding information about the seller's credibility may be hard
  • Returning the item could be difficult
  • You must trust that the seller will not misuse your financial information or the personal details in your prescription documentation
  • It's harder to ask a pharmacist questions about the drug or its side effects
  • You may encounter shipping delays with your order
  • You must trust the seller and shipper to transport any temperature-controlled medication properly

Not all sellers are safe and genuine. Some sellers may send you fake medicine with risky alternative ingredients. Or, they may sell authentic drugs past their expiration dates. They might not send you anything but charge your credit card anyway. Medications already carry risks, but choosing a safe pharmacy is vital to avoid more problems.

Laws Help Ensure Safe Online Pharmacies

Many laws and regulations apply to online drug sellers. These laws can help you protect your health information and make informed decisions about where to buy your medicine.

For example, The Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act requires sellers to identify their business name, pharmacists, and associated physicians. Online pharmacies must list their state pharmaceutical licenses on their website homepages. The law bans them from referring customers to doctors who will write prescriptions without a proper examination.

State laws also regulate online prescription drug sales. For example, California requires an online pharmacy to maintain purchase and sale records and buyers' prescriptions for three years.

Do I Always Need a Prescription?

Yes, you still need a doctor to prescribe the medication before buying it online. The pharmacy must verify you have a prescription before sending you the medication. OTC drugs, such as basic cold or allergy medicine, are an exception.

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is a federal law that requires medical supervision for certain drugs. Its purpose is to reduce substance abuse and addiction, especially in light of the opioid crisis. Trying to buy a controlled medication without the proper prescription may lead to criminal drug charges.

Prescription Requirements

A valid prescription must contain all 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 authorized refills
  • Doctor's signature

A valid prescription requires a bona fide doctor-patient relationship. A doctor must examine you and review your medical history to form this relationship. They can then decide whether you have a medical necessity for a controlled drug.

Online drug sellers can't examine patients to see whether they need medications. A questionnaire or other similar form of "examination" is insufficient. Some scam websites might claim you can buy prescription medicine from them without seeing a doctor, but that is false.

Telehealth Appointments for Prescriptions

Virtual doctor's appointments have become more common in recent years. Yet, the Ryan Haight Act requires healthcare professionals to see patients in person to prescribe certain medications.

State laws also limit virtual care. A doctor might only be able to prescribe some drugs without a prior face-to-face appointment. You might get a shorter supply of the medication and need to contact your provider for a refill sooner.

Telehealth services became necessary for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Health and Human Services and the DEA passed a temporary federal ruling to allow more flexibility. Providers could prescribe more medication types (Schedule II through V) without an in-person exam.

Can I Buy Medicine from Another Country?

No, as a consumer, you usually can't import foreign prescription medication, according to the FDA. A medication might be legal in another country, but it might not be legal for consumers in the United States.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, you may be able to ship medication if it isn't dangerous or already available in the U.S. market. Your package must contain essential details like your prescription and the doctor's information.

Several agencies, including the FDA, the DEA, and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), help track international shipments. They can confiscate your package if it doesn't qualify for an exception.

How To Find a Legitimate Online Pharmacy

The FDA recommends checking that an online pharmacy has the following safeguards:

  • A physical address in the U.S.
  • A licensed pharmacist available to answer questions
  • A phone number or other contact information available online
  • A clear prescription requirement
  • A pharmacy license with your state board

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) can help you search for verified internet pharmacy practice sites (VIPPS). These pharmacy websites follow safety standards, according to NABP. You can also check its list of potentially dangerous websites posing as pharmacies.

Get Legal Help for Online Medication Orders

Buying prescription drugs online shouldn't be dangerous, but the health risks can be fatal. Fraudulent pharmacy web pages can look real. Even a legitimate pharmacy may break the law or cut corners, which can gravely harm patients.

You or a loved one could suffer the consequences. Consult a consumer protection attorney to learn whether you may have a claim against an online drugstore.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to assist with any issues related to consumer transactions.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options