Pill-smuggling grannies

Published on

The Toronto Star

Aboard the Silver Meteor At the age of 78, when she thought she’d be living carefree under California’s palm trees, Carole Jaquez’s life has taken an unexpected twist: She has turned into a drug smuggler.

In a couple of days this frail grandmother from Apple Valley, Calif., will be in Toronto, stuffing prescription drugs into her handbag and crossing back into the U.S., hoping the border guard won’t suspect a wispy-haired senior of being loaded with contraband.

And she won’t be alone on her drug run.

Shortly after sunrise yesterday, Amtrak’s Silver Meteor train left Miami, picking up dozens of other retired and ailing Americans along the East Coast for a three-day, 3,500-kilometre trek to Canada. They are representatives of the United States’ latest underclass – the drug-needy.

On Thursday morning they will descend upon a still-unnamed Toronto pharmacy, with their doctors’ prescriptions in hand, to load up on a three-month supply of “meds.”

Then they will smuggle their small stash of pills and vials back to the United States.

They will be violating a U.S. law that bans Americans from bringing in prescription drugs from outside the country.

“I never dreamed I’d be in this position,” said Jaquez, a former college counsellor, who has no insurance for the more than $400 (U.S.) in prescription drugs she takes each month for high blood pressure, asthma and other ailments that come with aging.

“I’ve been stopped at the border and made to feel like a drug smuggler. But the costs of drugs in America are just out of control. By buying in Canada, I can save maybe $200 (U.S.) a month. It’s a lot of money when you’re retired.”

Welcome to America’s other war on drugs.

Faced with drug prices that have soared almost 200 per cent in the past dozen years, America’s sick and retired are increasingly revolting against the $180-billion (U.S.) pharmaceutical industry, which often charges Americans 30 to 60 per cent more than the price of the same drugs in Canada.

Leading the revolt is The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonpartisan pressure group that invited Jaquez and two dozen other Americans onto two rail cars attached to the back of the Silver Meteor.

Their aim is to pressure both Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington to adopt a Canadian-style system of buying drugs, that is, buying in bulk to negotiate better prices for U.S. citizens.

“We want to put this issue on the political agenda,” said Jerry Flanagan, the spokesman for the group, which is paying the passengers’ expenses.

“People shouldn’t have to go to Canada for cheap drugs. Canada is proof there is a better way.”

The U.S. drug industry, which says the high prices charged pay for the development of new drugs, doesn’t agree.

A spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association told the Miami Herald over the weekend that the train ride to Canada won’t bring down the price of drugs and is just “an election-year stunt.”

They won’t get any argument on that from those on the train, dubbed the RxExpress, a play on the symbol for a prescription.

At every whistle stop, the passengers tell the media they are just a few of the more than two million Americans – and many Canadians living in the U.S. – forced to break U.S. law each year by buying drugs from Canada, either by coming into the country or by mail order over the telephone or Internet.

They face little chance of being prosecuted, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has opted not to seek criminal charges against drug-needy Americans who smuggle in prescriptions from Canada for their personal use.

But U.S. customs does often confiscate drugs it finds and, at the U.S. border with Mexico, another popular spot to buy cheap drugs, people are often detained, searched and, in at least one case, arrested.

“I’ve been stopped at the Mexican border and had my car searched, like I was a drug smuggler,” said Jaquez, who now says she walks across the U.S.-Mexican border to avoid detection.

“They told me I was breaking the law, but let me go. They’ve also seized an Internet order I made from Canada. I’m not sure what they did with those drugs.”

With an estimated 100 million people with limited insurance or none at all to pay for their medication, the price of drugs has clearly become a major issue in the U.S. election. In fact, the only time Canada came up in the last presidential debate was when the two candidates were asked if they would allow Americans to freely order drugs from here.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said yes. But U.S. President George W. Bush once again questioned their safety.”When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn’t kill you,” he said. “What my worry is that, you know, it looks like it’s from Canada, and it might be from a Third World (country).”

As the Toronto-bound train trundled north through the Florida swamps toward Canada, few passengers took what Bush said seriously.

“That’s nonsense,” said Winnipeg-born Betty Greenspan, who now lives in the Miami area. She estimates her monthly drug bill is now $300 (U.S.) and rising. “Canada’s drugs are as good as ours.”

“Bush’s comment was, I’d say, stupid,” chipped in her husband, 78-year-old Gene, who says the cost of drugs means the couple cuts back on movies and going to restaurants. “Bush is just protecting the drug industry.”

By the time their train pulls into Union Station tomorrow evening, the riders hope they will have gotten enough media attention to ensure their issue will be addressed in that night’s presidential debate.

“Our timing is good,” said Sheila Franklin, a retiree from Florida who says her monthly drug costs have skyrocketed over the past three years from $378 (U.S.) to $1,111. “I’m not poor, but how can I do that? They have to help us. I’ve been stopped at the border and made to feel like a drug smuggler.”

Consumer Watchdog
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