Photo: BigKhem/Shutterstock

Why I Travel? Drugs

by Angela Orlando Aug 15, 2017

I LOVE the Southern Arizona borderland for its rugged high desert terrain and for the equally rugged people who call the region home. I don’t love feeling trapped living here, though —
especially on the US side, considering the current state of healthcare.

Technically I could relocate from the area but I won’t because I only live 120 kilometers from the Mexican border. At this time, I can’t afford to go to a US doctor to refill my psych meds, nor the pills themselves, so proximity to another country is pretty vital. In Mexico, I can go to a pharmacy right on their side of the wall, and get subsidized versions of whatever meds I need. And I do. Because I have to. In fact, I’ve been three times in as many months and I’m going again tomorrow.

Ironically I’m a doctor – just not that kind. I’m an anthropologist. Up until April, I had a job I didn’t enjoy, but I stayed because I was making well over the average Tucson salary and had full benefits. I needed said money and I needed said benefits because I take two costly medications twice a day. Turns out, being laid off became an expensive medical threat. My former prescribing practitioner charges $150 per visit, even when the visit translates to: “How’s your prescription cocktail going?” “Fine.” “Ok, here’s a three-month supply. Take care.” With insurance, those five minutes only cost me a $25 copay. Fast forward to my preferred pharmacy. Before the layoff, filling both prescriptions cost about $12 per month. Now? Even with coupons, sourced from valid sites like, I pay the pharmacy about $120 per month (when I have a refill on file, which I do not). Out-of-pocket medical insurance is, for me, about $275 per month. As a freelancer, that’s a hefty bill.

Until I get another 9–5 position, I have a few choices. First, I could go without my meds. While that would not kill me as it might some other patients, it would mean unbearable sadness and at least a touch of madness and cause head and face pain. No way could I summon the strength to apply for jobs all day as I do now. I’d probably not be able to get out of bed.

Second, I could find a cheap clinic in the area, and/or get medical help from the state. I’m working on that. Assistance requires so much paperwork that the process intimidates me – a scholar. I cannot imagine what it must be like to struggle with literacy issues and fill and print out these complicated forms. No wonder so many homeless people are also mentally ill. It’s a cyclical relationship: Can’t get meds, go looney. Go looney, can’t get meds.

Third, I could buy the drugs online from even more expensive websites that provide $300 pills that might be placebos. I’m not sure about the legality of that risk, either.

My former prescribing practitioner charges $150 per visit, even when the visit translates to: “How’s your prescription cocktail going?” “Fine.” “Ok, here’s a three-month supply. Take care.”

Fourth, and this is what I do, I can go across the border and buy what I need. My pills are not all that much cheaper than the full price here in the States, but in my case, going to Mexico eliminates the doctor visit. I resent having to travel to a foreign country to get my medicine. It is a shame that the US does not provide for its citizens, or at least make it easier to get help.

People wonder if the Mexican medical system is safe. Even some of my employed, insured friends take advantage of Mexican prescription and dental services, mostly to save up to 80 percent of what they would pay here. Not that it should matter, but my pharmacist was trained in Sacramento and she’s quite an expert in anti-depressants. My friend got her teeth cleaned for $10 by a dentist who went to school in Phoenix. Take care, though. Sometimes pharmacies do sell fake drugs, and sometimes the active ingredients are different than what you take. Read the label.

Everyone also wants to know if it’s legal to get meds in Mexico, and it kind of is. I am not a lawyer, but I do know that the legality of acquiring and/or bringing medical substances depends on the drug or substance. There are degrees to which medicine is “controlled,” both in Mexico and in the US. Certain meds are controlled in Mexico but not in the US, so bringing them *in* to Mexico is illegal, sometimes even with a prescription. Most controlled drugs are narcotics and psychotropics and are absolutely illegal in both countries. I use this site to determine how controlled a substance is.

Exchange rates are very favorable for Americans now, so I’m stocking up on the pills I need. This is how the process works: First, you go to a pharmacist and ask for what you want. (There are approximately one zillion pharmacies on the first few streets of Nogales, Mexico. It really doesn’t matter which you go to, in my experience. English is spoken.) Don’t be shy. Then, buy something cheap like fake vanilla, and get a bag for it. You can pay with US dollars, and you can use credit cards in most pharmacies. (Watch the foreign transaction fees.)

Then, check out this site and cross back into the US when the wait is short(er). Remember, Americans need a passport to re-enter the States. When you get to customs, the Homeland Security person will ask why you were in Mexico, and for how long. Me: “I met a friend for lunch and shopped for a few hours.” Him: “What did you buy?” Mention the vanilla and feel free to say you got pills at the pharmacy if you are so compelled. Many drugs are completely legal to bring back in without a prescription unless you bought more than a certain amount. Drugs legal to bring in include Viagra, some birth control pills, and certain antibiotics. Customs agents know that droves of Americans go to Mexico every day for vastly reduced-cost meds and procedures and that you are likely one of them. Lying about drugs will most likely get your meds taken away, and could even get you arrested.

I haven’t found any indication that my particular pills are illegal, though some sources say I need a prescription to bring them back home. I am under the impression that a Mexican pharmacist can write prescriptions; certainly, they know a nearby doctor who will.

I feel it is my responsibility to educate people about this topic because so many US citizens do not have prescription insurance coverage. In fact, 11.3 percent of Americans were totally uninsured in the first quarter of 2017. We are desperate for our medications; some people will even die if they are unable to fulfill their medical needs. I do not fall into the latter category, but I am happy to live so closely to a superior system. And that sucks.

This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.

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