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¿What If They Won't Let Your Prescription Medicine Across the Border?
When we came back to the border the Customs Officials detained me, told us we could NOT take ANY controlled substance into US unless we also had a US prescription....

¿What If They Won't Let Your Prescription Medicine Across the Border?
David "El Codo" Eidell

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By David "El Codo" Eidell
Posted Sunday, December 1, 2002

Uneven U.S. Customs Enforcement Policy Towards Controlled Medicines

Let's say that you've followed all of the recommendations regarding being legal and declaring your medicines to U.S. Customs. Upon your declaration, the Customs Agent responds with "Sorry you cannot bring that medicine into the United States" (or any number of other negative replies).

Don't despair and do not just resign yourself to "giving in" and surrendering the medicine or going back to the farmacia for a refund. You can appeal the agent's decision right on the spot to his/her supervisor. Read below some recommendations and tips about how to do a successful appeal. But first let's take a brief look at how a Customs Agent exerts a great deal of personal judgement on the allowability (or deniability) of a medicine that has been declared for personal consumption.

Each Agent Is An Entity

Like it or not, each individual U.S. Customs agent is allowed to judge the denial of a medicine by hard fact (steroids, iodine based oral anti-microbials, etc), or by soft hunch (addictive medicines, medicines with unfamiliar names, etc). Because most addictive Mexican medicines are NOT priced for substantial savings over the same medicines in the USA, an Agent will immediately focus on whether or not the medicine has the backdrop for "abuse". The definition and determination of "abuse" is left to each Agent's discretion.

The agent will assume that the declarer is ignoring the advice of and superseding the intentions of his/her personal physician, and "abusing" the correct application of the controlled medicine. Being a cop rather than a doctor, the agent suspect the worst and leave it to the declarer to change his mind (sometimes this is hard to do).

An Encounter With A Suspicious US Customs Agent

One of the few times that I have been questioned about my medicines at U.S. Customs, the Agent's question zeroed in on ESKAFLAM (Nimesulide). Had I not been prepared with an answer, I could have had several hundred dollars worth of medicine denied entry. This is how the conversation went (The Agent was a real hard case):

"Good afternoon sir -- how many Arellano brothers do you have in your trunk?"


Upon your declaration, the Customs Agent responds with "Sorry you cannot bring that medicine into the United States" (or any number of other negative replies).....


"Are you Columbian?"
"I'm American"

"What illegal substances do you wish to declare? Guns? Plastic Explosives?"
"Nothing except medicine for my arthritis."

"What is the name of the medicine."

"Never heard of it."
"Well you can't say that anymore." (a slight dig and he got the point)

"What is Eskaflam, another kind of painkiller?"
"It's just like CELEBREX only a lot cheaper."

"My brother's wife uses CELEBREX and it's expensive."
"That's why I am declaring three hundred doses."

"How do I know that what you're showing me isn't Valium or Quaaludes."
"In the form of a white pill that looks like aspirin?"

"Are you sure that you don't have a spare tire filled with white fluffy powder? OK you can go."

Conclusion: A pointed question about a controlled medicine usually needs more than a casual answer like "I have a slipped disc" or "Without medication I cannot sleep at night". Both answers fail to explain why you are purchasing a controlled medicine in Mexico to take home. The crux of the matter is to explain exactly why you prefer to not obtain this medication in the USA with the guidance of your US Doctor.

If nothing else, Customs Agents can be logical and it can be a challenging chore to try and explain why you drove a thousand miles to save a hundred dollars buying a narcotic or tranquilizer. There are a number of online pharmacies in the US, any one of which has current prices for medications including controlled medications.

One of the steps I would take in preparing for US Customs is to print out a copy of the price of the medicine. At the border you can show the Agent your farmacia receipt for the medicines you purchased and weigh that against the printed copy of US drug prices.

Medicines Not In The US Pharmacopeia Can Be Refused Entry  

Since a US doctor will not write a prescription for an unknown medication, it is up to you to be prepared to convince a U.S. Customs Agent or his supervisor that the medicine that you are declaring is being imported for a clear and rational reason. The reason can be medical (it works better than the USA alternative, or it is an orphan drug with no USA equivalent), financial (substantially cheaper than a US medicine), or any number of reasons that have the potential to satisfy a curious cop. The reasons have to place the medicine into a position of "advantage" that is clear and convincing.

Here's an example for Valium

The trademarked medicine "valium" (Roche) and it's generic equivalent (diazepam) are both substantially less expensive in Mexico (a 90 tablet frasco of "valium" typically costs twenty dollars, thirty generic tablets around three dollars).

If I did not have a prescription from my US doctor for this medicine, I would certainly retain a copy of my Mexican doctor's prescription, plus a store receipt. But that's not compelling evidence to a US Custom's Agent. A scribbled note from a US pharmacy with comparative prices for Valium is an excellent tool that demonstrates a financial reason (the only valid reason to him) to get Valium outside of official channels through your USA doctor.

Now whether or not this agent is going to allow more than FIFTY DOSES of a controlled medicine into the USA is another issue (Refer to the articles about buying prescription medicines in Mexico). But keep in mind the dose limit ISN'T an iron clad. Like most things dose limits are up to each individual inspector. A compelling argument for (this means a polite discussion) the medicine includes evidence and a brief education for the agent (The point here to keep in mind is that you have to SELL your point of view to the Agent or if that fails to his superior). This is why there is NOTHING as compelling as having a recent prescription from your US doctor.

If You Feel That Your Medicines Are Unfairly Challenged

If the Customs Agent declares that your medicine is not admissible, don't just give up and trash the meds and drive home without doing some appealing to the supervisor. But first, some leg work and preparations.

1) Obtain the name and badge number of the agent.

2) Note the date and time.

3) Try to remember the agent's words verbatim as to exactly why his declared the medicine as inadmissible.
•Was it for lack of a prescription?
•Was it USA or Mexican prescription?
•Was the name of the medicine unrecognized or banned? Find out which.
•Is the medicine controlled?

4) Write down the name and dosage of the medicine?

The Agent is going to keep the medicine if you tell him that you wish to plead your case inside the US Custom's Office.

Appeal to the Supervisor

Park your car and go into the Custom's office. Ask to speak to the "Supervisor On Duty". Plead your case to him/her as serenely and as detached as you can.

If the supervisor over rides the agent's decision then the matter is settled right then and there.

If a supervisor were to "agree" with the agent and disallow the medication, this is what I would do:

1) Politely ask for the supervisor's full name and badge number.

2) Redirect your question to say: "Exactly why is this medicine disallowed entry for my own personal use?" Carefully copy the answer down (word for word).

3) Ask for the telephone number and or mailing address of the Port Director of that particular port and the telephone number of the relevant department of US Customs in Washington DC. Every Port of Entry has official business cards listing the telephone number of the facility. Ask for one of the cards and also ask for and write down the name of the "Director of The Port", and get his extension number if possible. If for some reason you cannot speak with the Port Director immediately, you can call him/her later when you get home.

4) When you get home follow up on your grievance. Mail a copy of your letter to the Port Director and an exact copy to US Customs, Washington DC. Follow up with a telephone call.

[David's Note] I have found that a very calm and very courteous approach works best with busy US Customs port personnel. A businesslike, polite yet relentless point-of-view can often sway even the most negative of personnel. You have got to "sell" your point of view rather than argue the point. 

Use your "Package Insert" from the US form of the medicine as compelling evidence of acceptance by US health authorities.

I successfully "argued" the legitimacy of an "unapproved" Non Steroid Anti Inflammatory Drug (Nimesulide) simply by pointing out that the medicine has been used in Europe for more than a dozen years, and is a rational alternative for more expensive "Celebrex". A eavesdropping agent even inquired later "Do you think it is as good as Celebrex?"

El Codo's Self Test for Addiction

If I voluntarily stop taking any (except life support) medicine for two solid weeks, and suffer no withdrawals, then I was not addicted to that medicine. Notice that I did not say one of the following (Would, Could, Should, Ought to be able to, Most probably, Likely, however, or ALMOST). Either I stop for two weeks or I don't. If I don't then I am an addict.

I know that my excuse department can come up with some real dillys when it comes to excusing myself from the self-test, including "Why should I be uncomfortable to just find out what I already knew?" (That one is my favorite.)

Here's another one "Stop taking ---------- and go back to insomnia? I gotta work, and I'm sure not an addict!"

Or for pain "I have ---------, a real bone crusher of a pain in my back, leg, knee etc), ---------- is the only medicine that works good. Why should I go through all that pain (just to find out something I already know).

I have "coached" several fellow beach campers to quit using addictive medicines and, while the withdrawal process can get a little raw and rocky, every one of them admitted that shaking the habituation was worth it. Huge pluses about going "straight" in Mexico include a beautiful, serene environment, and the ability to try a great variety of gentler medication to ease the transition.


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