Canadian online pharmaceutical company Canada Drugs has been fined $34m for importing unapproved drugs into the US.

The company supplies cheaper prescription medication from Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand for patients in the US ‘by bringing the savings right to them over their computer or phone line’.

Federal prosecutors found the Winnipeg-based company guilty of importing non-US Food and Drug Administration approved drugs and counterfeit cancer drugs.

According to ABC News, the company has made at least $78m through illegal imports, with prosecutors claiming that this included counterfeit versions of cancer drugs Avastin and Altuzan that had no active ingredient.

Six Canadian men, including Canada Drugs founder and former Manitoba pharmacist Kristjan Thorkelson, were arrested in June 2017 under the Extradition Act Canada Drugs during an investigation into the distribution of counterfeit cancer drugs. Canada Drugs struck a plea deal with prosecutors in December last year, and has pleaded guilty to concealing a felony crime.

US District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana approved federal prosecutors’ recommendations that the company be fined a total of $34m and Thorkelson be sentenced to six months’ house arrest, five years’ probation and a $250,000 fine.

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The company will also be required to stop selling unapproved drugs in the US.

However, advocacy group Partnership for Safe Medicines has called for a harsher sentence. Executive director Shabbir Imber Safdar said in a letter to the judge: “This decision is a slap on the wrist and an insult to the victims of Canada Drugs’s crimes. Stated simply, illegal importation through Canada is not safe and can kill.”

The company was founded in response to the rising costs of prescription medication, citing how many US citizens were taking bus trips across the border to purchase more affordable medication from Canadian pharmacies.

Amidst rising drug prices, many US citizens are turning to cheaper alternatives from abroad when sourcing their prescription medicine. An estimated five million Americans have purchased drugs outside the US, around 2% of the population.

Some US states are proposing importing medicines from Canada. According to The Guardian, Vermont lawmakers are considering legislation to create an agency that would buy popular prescription medicines in bulk from Canada, and then distribute to pharmacies in the state.

Advocacy groups, such as the Campaign for Personal Prescription Importation, which ‘fights for Americans’ access to safe, affordable prescription medications from Canada for personal use’, campaign for policy changes that would allow chronically ill patients to gain access to medication from licensed Canadian pharmacies.