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Saturday, July 10, 2004

Justice unserved

Justice unserved
We live in a world in which busloads of American senior citizens are ferried daily to Mexican border towns to buy cheap prescription drugs.

American seniors with ailments to treat and, more importantly, dollars to spend have become the centrifugal force around which an entire international industry spins: U.S. tour organizers and guides, as well as Mexican pharmacy chains, physicians and a host of entrepreneurs selling goods in the Mexican "tourist zones" through which those drug customers pass all have benefited enormously from the ready availability of cheap medicines.

In Nogales, Sonora, there are more than 100 pharmacies dispensing prescription drugs. It is a multimillion-dollar business driven by one of the most complex issues of our times: the soaring cost of drugs in this country.

Given all that, the arrest and detention in Nogales, Mexico, of a 66-year-old east Phoenix retiree for failing to observe Mexican laws that have proved extraordinarily malleable and arbitrarily enforced seems strange, indeed.

Raymond Lindell concedes he unwittingly broke the laws of Mexico when he bought 270 capsules of Valium, a powerful prescription tranquilizer. After being arrested seven weeks ago, he now stands accused of illegally buying prescription drugs for transportation across the border. He faces up to five years in prison for his crime.

Certainly, it is foolish to enter a foreign country without some understanding of what that nation deems illegal. But not only were laws governing prescription-drug sales across the border enforced arbitrarily before Lindell happened into what appears to be a sting operation, they continue to be enforced arbitrarily against both pharmacies and tourists.

The arrest of Lindell and about a dozen other Americans in Nogales has simply driven the prescription-drug sales business - as well as the tourist trade generally - to other Mexican border communities. The prescription-drug sales business in Algodones, for example, is thriving while virtually all the Nogales businesses that rely on the tourist trade are suffering terribly. Why is the crackdown occurring only in Nogales?

The most serious of Lindell's mistakes - failing to obtain a prescription from a Mexican physician - also is the most confusing. Customers seeking prescription drugs need only procure a script for a fee to get their prescriptions filled. One East Valley Tribune reporter wrote that the pharmacist who sold her 100 muscle-relaxants wrote out a "prescription" for her for an extra $20. "It will say your name and take once a day or once an hour, whatever you want," she reportedly was told. Small wonder prescription buyers have come to view such laws as procedural red tape.

Still, it is difficult not to sympathize with Nogales Police Chief Ramses Acres, who rightly observed to Republic reporter Dennis Wagner that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Indeed, you can fairly hear the frustration in Acres' voice as he complains about the criticism of the Nogales arrests. Americans complain bitterly about prescription drugs bought in Mexico showing up in their high schools, being peddled by their teenagers. But as soon as he takes action, the complaints multiply.

The ultimate resolution, of course, is a solution to the ongoing American health-care debacle.

In the meantime, a way must be found to free Raymond Lindell. Keeping this retiree in jail serves no country's sense of justice.

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