Hidden Camera Investigation: Buying Rx drugs in Mexico - Tucson News Now

Hidden Camera Investigation: Buying Rx drugs in Mexico

Pharmacists estimate that about 70% of their business comes from U.S. tourists. Pharmacists estimate that about 70% of their business comes from U.S. tourists.

Because of the high price of prescription medication, many Americans head south of the border to buy their medicine.

They say what Las Vegas is to gambling, Mexico is now to pharmacies. 

As soon as you cross the Nogales border at the De Concini port of entry, you only have to travel a few feet before you come across a big row of pharmacies. 

The medical tourism industry is booming.  Pharmacists estimate that about 70% of their business comes from U.S. tourists.

It's one of the perks of living in a border town, you don't have to travel far to see the savings, but during our special hidden camera investigation we found out that you can get just about anything for the right price.

We found many pharmacies to pick from and men standing outside trying to usher you into theirs, with offers of big discounts and special savings.

Juan Osorio, a supervisory public affairs liaison with U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they saw people crossing with prescription pills just about everyday. 

"We have everywhere from young people to old buying prescription medicine in Mexico," said Osorio.

Tucsonan Bob Fineman made the trip a few times a year to save money on heartburn pills.

"In the U.S. it depends on where you buy it, it's 40-cents a pill.  Here its 7-cents a pill," said Fineman.

While the savings are great, how easy is it to get controlled substances like Hydrocodone or Valium in Mexico?

To find out, we took our hidden camera into several pharmacies and asked around.  It didn't take us long to figure out that in many cases no prescription, no problem.

We were told a Mexican doctor was available in a back room to write us a prescription.  In some cases we wouldn't even have to see the doctor.  He would just sign a blank prescription for us.

When we asked the pharmacy employee if we would get into trouble he shook his head and said no, no, no. 

We asked him where the doctor was.  He said the doctor only came once in a while, but they could give me a signed prescription, and I wouldn't even have to see the doctor.

A few doors down, at another pharmacy, we the employee if it was possible to get a generic form of Oxycodone if we did not have a valid prescription.

He said their doctor could write me one, and would not ask me any questions.

"You will not even see the doctor, I do it myself," said the employee.

Not all were quick to offer us a deal.  One pharmacist flat out denied our request for Valium when we told him we did not have a prescription.

"That one is illegal.  Even if you have prescription from a Mexican doctor, you cannot cross the border with it," said the Pharmacy employee.

Some others told us U.S. Customs officials did not really care whether you had a prescription or not, so we went straight to customs officials to separate smooth talk from hard facts.

"We will not accept a prescription from a Mexican doctor, another country's doctor," said Osorio.

By law, Osorio said you had to declare all prescription medications you had purchased in Mexico.  If officials found it on you on their own, the penalties were stiff.  They might dispose of it if it was not a controlled substance.  If it was a controlled substance, you could end up paying thousands of dollars in fines, even go to jail.

Osorio said the drugs they seized most often at the check points were Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Valium, and the date rape drug Rohypnol.

We asked one pharmacist who was willing to sell us controlled substances without a prescription how we could avoid getting busted by Customs.

"I put it in a different bottle for you.   Plain bottle. You can buy a little bag and put it in your bra and they don't check or nothing," said the pharmacy employee.

We asked him if people did that all the time, he said "Yeah, why do you think there are so many pharmacies here?"

At the Star Pharmacy, we spoke to Pharmacist Carlos Lopez who was very popular among tourists in Nogales, Sonora.

Lopez said he did not even carry controlled substances in his store.

Bob Fineman, a loyal customer of Star Pharmacy said he felt bad that a few bad seeds were giving the pharmacy industry in Mexico a bad name.  Fineman said most pharmacies were upstanding.

"I think it hurts all the good pharmacies, like this pharmacy."

Fineman took tourist groups to Mexico specifically to buy prescription medication.

We checked around for a few price comparisons.

Things like Retin-A that sell for about $100 a tube in the U.S. cost than $30 in Mexico.

Most antibiotics cost half of what they cost here in the U.S. and stomach medicine, was about a third of the cost.

"Make sure you go to a reputable pharmacy. Do not follow the shady guy down the dark alley and makes you an offer you can't refuse," said Fineman.

We also talked to Pharmacists here in the U.S. to get their thoughts on this, many worried about the quality of medication, and if the patients were getting the right dosage.

"I hope the patients are being monitored. If they are taking something from Mexico I hope they're being looked at by a doctor and are noting their progress," said Rachel Ogumbo, a pharmacy intern at the Medicine Shoppe in Tucson.

Copyright 2012 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

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