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Canadians say U.S. seizing more drugs

The U.S. government apparently is stepping up seizures of cheap drugs ordered by Americans – mainly seniors – from abroad, Canadian pharmacies say.

The pharmacies, which sell drugs by mail and over the Internet, say their shipments are being intercepted by U.S. Customs officials at centers in New York, California and Florida where foreign mail is handled.

“It’s huge – we’ve had over 800 seizures in January,” up from 15 in a typical month, said Barney Britton, president of Calgary-based MinitDrugs.

Other pharmacies reported four- to fivefold increases. An informal survey of 30 Canadian pharmacies that cater to American customers, conducted by an American senior-citizen advocacy Web site, reported that the rise began in November, doubled in December and doubled again in January.

Ordering drugs from abroad is illegal. But U.S. Customs and Food and Drug Administration officials have generally allowed the practice, apart from occasional sweeps designed to publicize potential risks.

Federal regulators say that policy hasn’t changed – and there is no crackdown.

People whose drugs are seized are not cited and generally are able to get them replaced for free by the foreign pharmacy. But many are infuriated.

“It’s despicable,” said Samuel Robert Greenberg, a Laguna Niguel, Calif., retiree who lost a package of anti-cholesterol pills and glaucoma eyedrops late last month. “They are playing with people’s lives.”

Greenberg, 73, said he and his wife have bought drugs from Canadian pharmacies for years without incident. But if replacements for his Lipitor pills don’t arrive by next week, Greenberg said, he will have to buy from a local pharmacy at about $3 a pill – a third more than he pays through the mail.

Some Canadian pharmacy operators believe U.S. authorities timed the latest seizures to coincide with the Jan. 1 launch of Medicare’s drug-discount program, which competes for the business of American seniors.

“I think, quite frankly, that (U.S. authorities) see an opportunity,” said Britton. “They know that this would probably be the most vulnerable time for us.”

Canadian pharmacies report declines in U.S. orders between 10 percent and 30 percent since the Medicare program began. But many seniors, particularly those whose drug needs are modest, find Canadian pharmacies are still cheaper than the Medicare program.