Cancun Travelers Guide to Pharmaceuticals
Pharmacies and Prescription Drugs in Cancun Mexico
In recent years, thousands of Americans have traveled to Mexico to purchase pharmaceuticals at a fraction of U.S. costs. While there are obvious benefits to this practice, there is and always will be questions about the authenticity of the medications.
Availability and Use
With the exception of controlled substances such as narcotics, stimulants, sleeping pills, and barbiturates, you can purchase most pharmaceuticals in Mexico without a doctor’s prescription. As a general rule, once a pharmaceutical is approved for use in any European or North American country, it is made available in Mexico.
The less restrictive nature of the Mexican pharmaceutical industry allows those without access to health care to obtain medications. In addition, the system has been designed to allow for a certain amount of self-treatment without a doctor’s guidance. Treatment under the guidance of “curanderos” (shamans) or unlicensed individuals who call themselves “doctors” is more common, especially in regions lacking legitimate health care professionals. Traditionally, pharmacists have played an advisory role with patients who cannot afford quality medical care. Some pharmacists are even trained to give injections.
We always recommend that you consult a doctor prior to taking any medication. The pharmaceutical index in the Mexico: Health and Safety Travel Guide also contains a list of common medications that travelers might purchase, independent of a physician’s directive. We highly recommend that you understand their uses and possible side effects before starting treatment
Obtaining and Transporting Medications across the U.S. Border
Access to expensive designer medications is a tremendous political issue in the U.S. Many people, especially senior citizens with multiple medical conditions, have turned to Canada and Mexico for their prescription needs. Most border towns have rows of pharmacies with long lines of North Americans waiting to purchase medications.
However, reports suggest that many drugs purchased south of the border are either impure or impotent. The U.S. Consulate reports that according to U.S. law enforcement officials, “the amount of counterfeit and substandard medications in Mexico could be as high as 25 percent.” Yet, many people continue to purchase and use Mexican pharmaceuticals. Our recommendation is that you stay away from generics or buy them at your own risk, even if the risk might be small. Always purchase drugs from a large chain pharmacy. Brand names are not nearly as inexpensive, but you can be assured of their quality.
U.S. customs law dictates that the quantity of prescription drugs you may transport across the border be an amount “deemed of immediate need.” The U.S. Consulate loosely translates this as a one-month supply. For more information on bringing prescription drugs into the U.S., visit the U.S. Customs web site . For more information, phone +1 (202) 307-2414 in the United States.
In practice, border officials have been less restrictive of people transporting medications across the border, although they have made arrests, especially when large quantities are involved. We advise that if you plan to bring pharmaceuticals back to the U.S., have a copy of a doctor’s prescription and/or a doctor’s letter with you, as well. The safest practice is to declare all of your purchases at the border. If there are any questions, these can be anticipated prior to your importing the medicines. The U.S. Consulate also warns that Mexican officials can be very strict about the possession of large quantities of controlled substances. Again, if you have your personal physician’s written documentation of your medication needs, you may avoid having your medication confiscated, or, in the worst case, being incarcerated.
Robert H. Page, MD and Curtis P. Page, MD are authors of the MEXICO: Health and Safety Travel Guide and the Healthy Traveler Regional Series.