Somewhere in some guidebook written a long time ago and probably reprinted in other guidebooks somebody wrote that it is illegal to bring codeine into Greece. Since then every couple months I have gotten an e-mail from someone who takes a prescription drug that contains codeine and they want to know if they will be arrested at the airport for smuggling. The answer is that if you are taking a prescription drug and visiting Greece nobody cares. The Greek customs officials are
not going to take your medicine away. So we can put this myth to rest right now.
But a question that is even more interesting to me is not what drugs can you bring into Greece but what drugs can you take out of Greece and bring home with you? For example if you are taking a drug every day that costs $200 a month at your friendly neighborhood drugstore at home in America and you can find the same exact drug in the same dosage for only $50 a month in a Greek pharmacy why not buy it in Greece?
So if I go to Greece with a prescription from my family doctor can I fill it at a Greek pharmacy? I asked this question to a very knowledgable friend who just happened to have a friend who worked in a pharmacy in Athens and his answer was...
"Except for medicines that contain controlled substances such as amphetamines, codeine, and other narcotics that can be used by drug addicts, all other medications can be sold to Americans and other foreigners who have a prescription from their doctor in the U.S. or their other home country. This is completely legal. They can also buy controlled substances, but then they would need to have a Greek doctor's prescription".
Cool. OK but can they buy enough of their medicine to make it worth the trip? Can someone buy a year's supply from a pharmacy if they have a prescription?
"They will not be able to buy very large quantities from a single pharmacy, but they will be able to buy a 6 - 12 month supply by visiting 3 or 4 different pharmacies and by showing the same prescription at each. This would be necessary since pharmacies typically do not have large quantities of any particular drug on hand at any given point in time."
That's understandable. What about bringing the drugs back home?
"Only medications that can be legally prescribed in the United States may be imported for personal use. Be aware that possession of certain substances may also violate state laws. As a general rule, the FDA does not allow the importation of prescription drugs that were purchased outside the United States. Please see their Web site for information about the enforcement policy for personal use quantities."
So I went to the website using the url my friend had provided for me. You can read it too: http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/ImportProgram/ucm173751.htm
It seemed to be mostly about importing unapproved drugs, out of concern for us citizens. It kind of gave me a nice feeling though it did not really answer my question. But at the end of the page it mentions that some of the drugs that are manufactored for the foreign markets may be versions that are not approved by the FDA. But what about the drugs that are the exact same? Can you bring back a year's supply?
According to the FDA...
... importation should generally not represent more than a 3 month supply of the unapproved products. The purpose for this provision is in keeping with the intent that the guidance relate to only drugs for personal use, not commercial distribution. As the document sets forth only guidance, the 3 month limitation is not a "requirement" or a "restriction."
Basically, the FDA frowns upon the importation of drugs manufactured abroad and in any case has set an arbitrary limitation of a maximum 3 month supply for any medicine being imported for personal use. But frowning upon something is a lot different from throwing somebody in jail and from the way I read the article the government seems to understand that there will be people who need to buy their drugs elsewhere because they are too expensive in the USA. Does that mean the cheerful
customs official will look at your bag of medicine and wink knowingly as he waves you through? Not necessarily. But it would take a pretty mean customs guy to not allow an ill American citizen to bring his drugs into the USA.
So am I encouraging travelers to come to Greece and use this opportunity to buy their medicine to help defray the cost of their trip? Well if it is legal under Greek law and the US government does not care as long as it is not more than a 3 month supply then I would have to say why not? The only ones who would really care would be the pharmaceutical companies and they are still making money, just not as much as they would if you bought your drugs in America. Would I do
it? If I can get something at a fraction of the price in Greece that it costs me in the USA and that without it I would die or feel terrible of course I would. But I go back and forth to Greece anyway. Would I go to Greece for the purpose of buying my needed drugs if I had never been there and never had a desire to go there? Probably not. Unless I knew for sure that I would be able to get the drugs and enough to make it worth the cost of the trip. They would have to be some seriously expensive drugs though, like
ACTIQ which costs 318 euros for 30 1600mcg lozanges in Greece and $3256 in the USA, quite a difference in cost. Even just a legal 3 month supply would pay for your holiday a couple times over. Of course someone on ACTIQ may not feel much like going on holiday since it is an advanced pain medicine for cancer victims who no longer respond to opiates and the drug itself can easily kill you if you are not careful. But a month supply of 70mg Effexor costs 30 euros instead of almost $200. Even if it is not enough to
pay for your trip the money you save will buy a lot of souvlakia.
Anyway I am not encouraging people to travel to Greece to buy their drugs. But knowing what I know and knowing that there are people who may have to make the choice between their medicine and a holiday, I feel it is my duty to let them know they can do both.