A Utah insurance company has made headlines by giving its public sector enrollees – approximately 160,000 state residents – travel money and cash to go to Tijuana, Mexico, where they can buy prescription drugs cheaper than they can get them in the United States. As retired DEA agents who worked extensively in Latin America on illicit drug trafficking issues for more than 30 years, we can’t honestly think of a worse idea.
Some would call this an innovative way of getting around federal laws that prohibit the importation of prescription drugs from other countries. Anyone, though, with an awareness of what is happening in the world of counterfeit drug manufacturing and trafficking, particularly where Mexico is concerned, realizes that this insurance company is engaging in an extremely risky enterprise with potentially tragic consequences.
Earlier this year, Homeland Security officials and other police agencies concluded an operation that resulted in the seizure of counterfeit medications that originated in Mexico and were sold in the United States – enough drugs to fill multiple self-storage units. The ringleader of this operation wasn’t some notorious drug lord on most wanted lists. He had been a registered pharmacist in Tijuana.
This is far from an isolated example. In fact, in 2017, Mexico was ranked fifth internationally in the volume of counterfeit drugs seized by law enforcement. So, when American consumers cross the border in search of inexpensive medicines, they are literally heading into one of the world’s most active criminal markets in terms of the development and distribution of fake pills.
These are not, by any means, victimless crimes. Our nation has already seen too many deaths from counterfeit medications. In some cases, patients have seen their diseases worsen because they’re taking fake medicines that lack the necessary active ingredients. In others, death and disability comes more rapidly because these counterfeits are laced with lethal doses of fentanyl.
In fact, the Sinaloa Cartel is the leading drug trafficking syndicate in the Western Hemisphere and is a leading source of counterfeit pain medicines containing synthetic fentanyl. Other traffickers such as the Zetas paramilitary crime syndicate are also active in making sure these drugs find their way to American patients.
Amidst these clear and present dangers, we can’t ensure the safety of Utah citizens who are being encouraged and subsidized to get critically-important medicines from Tijuana. The insurer insists that the Tijuana medical facility with which it is working is perfectly safe (they even compared it to the Mayo Clinic), but one has to be concerned that an influx of 160,000 cash-laden American customers will make this destination a particularly inviting target for counterfeiters and traffickers. The State Department has also repeatedly warned Americans traveling to Mexico of the rampant crime and increased homicides.
Finally, it’s not as if counterfeiting activity is limited to Mexico’s criminal underworld. The former governor of Vera Cruz is currently charged with purchasing counterfeit anti-cancer drugs for government hospitals. Pediatric cancer patients in a Vera Cruz hospital died after receiving these fake medicines that had no therapeutic ingredients.
There is a reason why Congress and multiple Food and Drug Administration commissioners from both Democratic and Republican administrations have insisted for years that it is not safe to bring drugs from other countries into the United States. Because we see, time and again, how medicines that aren’t subject to strict FDA rules on manufacturing, labeling, and distribution carry a definite risk. Given the deaths our nation has already absorbed from counterfeit drugs and fentanyl-doctored medications, it’s not worth risking the health and safety of Utahns or Americans overall.
Steve Murphy and Javier Peña actively investigated and pursued illegal international drug traffickers during their decades-long careers in the Drug Enforcement Administration. They served as inspiration and consultants for the Netflix show “Narcos,” now in its fourth season.