Prescription medication: a hidden risk when crossing the US border

Imagine traveling to the United States by car with your prescription medication in a pill organizer. You are referred to secondary inspection while officers search your car and discover your pill organizer. Later, local police arrive, inform you that you have the right to remain silent, and issue you a notice to appear in court to defend a criminal charge.

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. I recently consulted with a gentleman who faced an almost identical situation. When I reached out to a local criminal defense attorney, she replied

I represent clients with that fact pattern frequently…..If someone crosses the border with medication outside its original container, and without the prescription in their possession, they are often charged with a crime for possession of a legend drug and prosecuted in Blaine Municipal Court.

A “legend drug” is any drug required by law “to be dispensed on prescription only.” By contrast, a “controlled substance” is “a drug or other substance, or immediate precursor, included in schedule I, II, III, IV, or V” of section 812 of Title 21 of the United States Code. Any alien who has been convicted of a violation of a state or federal law or regulation “relating to a controlled substance” is inadmissible to the United States. Similarly, any alien who admits to committing such a violation, or admits to committing acts that constitute a violation is also inadmissible.

Since many valid prescriptions are also controlled substances, traveling with prescriptions in a pill organizer may set a trap for the unwary. For example, Xanax, Dexederine, Codeine, Percocet, and Ambien are all controlled substances that can be obtained with a prescription. Possessing these drugs without a valid prescription, however, may be probable cause to charge someone with a controlled substances violation. Crossing the border with these or similar substances in a pill organizer therefore can lead to charges, convictions, and ultimately inadmissibility to the United States.

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