Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
Did you ever stop to wonder if taking your medication with you in a pill box or some other device was legal? The thought probably never cross the minds of most people. However, many would be surprised to find that prescription medications are serious business legally. They also don’t realize all the laws and regulation surrounding prescription drugs. So, are prescription drugs not in an original pill container legal?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 48% of Americans take at least one prescription medication. Similarly, 24% take three or more prescription medications. Multiple prescription medications along with over the counter (OTC) drugs and dietary supplements can become overwhelming. They can be hard to keep track of and take up a lot of space especially with large pill bottles.
1. What Makes Your Prescriptions Legal?
The reason you need a prescription from a doctor for some medications is they are not allowed to be sold to the public without it. Prescription medications are deemed “dangerous drugs”. This means that if used in the wrong way or without supervision they could cause harm.
That is why you have to get a prescription from a licensed doctor. That then needs to be taken to a pharmacy registered with your state and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist. This process helps ensure proper usage of the medication and is setup for your safety.
The pharmacy is required to dispense the medication to you in a container with a label that meets federal and state laws. The following components are required on most prescription labels.
Required On Pharmacy Label
- Prescription number
- Patient name
- Dispense date
- Name and strength of drug
- Directions for use
- Quantity of drug dispensed
- Prescriber name
- Pharmacist name
- Expiration date
In addition, most pharmacies put their name, address and phone number on the label.
You will also see the following statement on any controlled substance prescription medication.
“Federal law prohibits the transfer of this drug to any person other than the patient for whom it was prescribed.”
Therefore, prescription drugs including controlled substances have three legal ways they can be possessed.
- In the original container
- When in use
- In a form of repackaging or container intended for convenient use
That means that carrying around loose pills in your pocket or purse is not a good idea. Let’s take a look at some other scenarios.
2. Can I Mix Pills In The Same Container?
Having several medications to take and in some cases multiple times per day can be confusing. That is why pharmacists recommend using some sort of weekly pill box. This helps you remember if you took your medication for that day or not. Keeping all your medications in their bottle increases the chance of taking more doses in a day than you should.
Remember prescription drugs are deemed dangerous drugs by the FDA for a reason. If not used correctly, they can cause harm.
Is it safe to use a pill box? Well that depends on where you store it.
The way medications are stored is not always something people put much thought into. However, this can affect the potency of the medication. Additionally, when in a pill box the tablets and capsules are in contact with each other. That could cause chemical reactions in some instances as well.
The table below lays out things you should ask your pharmacist before storing medications together.
|Light exposure||Medications can be affected by light, which is why many are dispensed in amber bottles. Ask your pharmacist or read the handout with your script to see if light is a storage problem.|
|Temperature||Most medications need to be stored at room temperature. Exposure to high heat may cause them to break down or form dangerous metabolites. Read the storage instructions on your prescription handout.|
|Humidity||High humidity is not good for any medication. Water vapor will cause changes to the chemical structure of the medications. Do not store medications near the shower.|
Pill boxes don’t have to be an amber color if they are stored in a dark place out of the light. Likewise, make sure to them closed to prevent air and humidity exposure. Finally, don’t store your medication in the bathroom! Wide swings in temperature and humidity will make it less likely these medications will work the way they are intended to.
3. Do Prescription Drugs Have To Be In Original Containers?
Under normal circumstances prescription medications that you possess in your own home do not have to be in an original container. When you leave home and take medication with you using a pill box is still a good idea. However, a surge in prescription drug abuse especially opioid painkiller medications has drawn more scrutiny to individual pills.
Is it legal to use a pill box?
Yes, it is perfectly legal to use a pill box. Just remember, if anyone were to question it you should be able to prove you have a prescription for the medication in question.
Things to remember if you are away from home and have medications in a pillbox.
- Law enforcement does not have the right to search you just to look for pills.
- Routine traffic stops must have some sort of probable cause before searching you.
- Driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) opens you up to be searched for prescription medication as well. If it is not in the original container you could be charged for that also.
- Traveling to different states or by plane can be a different story, see below.
4. Make Sure You Check The Sate Laws
In recent years some states have created laws around carrying prescription drugs that are not in original containers. These laws have been created to try and deal with the overwhelming surge in prescription drug abuse. They are not really intended for the average citizen who is trying to keep medications straight by using a pillbox.
That being said you could get caught up in the mix if not careful. Below are the states where it is illegal to carry prescription drugs without the bottle.
In 2010 Georgia made it illegal to carry prescription medications not in the original container. You also may not carry someone else’s medications in a different container. If found guilty you could be subject to:
- Misdemeanor offense
- Penalty of up to one year in jail & up to $1,000 in fines
Similarly, New Jersey made a law in 2014 that states you may only lawfully possess prescriptions in the container it was dispensed. They do make an exception for small supplies, up to 10 days supply that can be carried outside of the original prescription bottle. However, for the short supply be ready to produce the name of the prescribing doctor and dispensing pharmacist.
If found guilty in New Jersey penalties could include:
- Misdemeanor offense
- Does show on criminal record that others can see
- Jail time of up to 6 months, with probation and a fine up to $1,000
Again, neither state has cops actively looking through your purse for a pillbox. However, if you are doing things that could indicate illegal drug activity, this gives police something to question.
5. Does TSA Check Your Pills?
When you travel by plane things are a little different. You will want to make sure you are aware of these differences so your trip goes smoothly. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inspects everything you take on a plane that is not in a checked bag. Placing them in a checked bag might be the easiest thing to do if you don’t need them during travel.
If you take prescriptions not in the original container to a security checkpoint they will undergo security X-ray screening. This is done for all items at TSA checkpoints. Pillboxes would not need to be pulled out of the bag, but you should tell the agents you have them first. Also, make sure any medication and medical device is labeled.
Medications in liquid, solid, cream or ointment forms are allowed in your carry on bag. If they are over 3 ounces you need to make sure you pull these items out and put them in a bin for X-ray screening.
- Label your medications before you get to the airport. If not in original package just write what they are.
- Checked bags make it easier, you don’t have to worry about it then.
- Inform the TSA agent of what you have in carry on bags.
- Other countries may have different rules, read about this before you go.
6. Do Prescription Drugs Have To Be In Original Containers When Flying Internationally?
Flying internationally comes with some different requirements. You will have to go through TSA security checks and then customs. At customs they will look at your passport and ask you some questions about your business in the other country.
It would be a rare occurrence that you would have to show medications at customs. The bigger concern is making the trek through security checkpoints. Make sure you get online and read the ins and outs of the security checkpoints for each country you are flying to.
Keep in mind that checking the medication in your checked luggage is normally the easiest way to avoid any concerns.
7. Not Legal Advice, Just Common Sense From A Pharmacist
Here are the best practices you should remember when it comes to any prescription drugs you have that are not in the original container.
|To do||How to|
|1.||Keep a medication list. Regardless of how you store your medication keep a medication list that you keep with you.|
Here is a comprehensive medication list.
|2.||Get a medication list app for your phone. Apple and Google both have their own apps and there are many on the market. Keep the written list and app up to date.|
Click here for an example app and how to use it.
|3.||Take pictures of your prescription bottles on your smartphone. Tag the photos and put them in a folder in your photo library.|
This ensures you can present proof of having a prescription.
|4.||Ask the pharmacist to print extra labels for your medications. Then you can put them into a baggy if you fly without the need for bulky bottles.|
This is optional, pictures on your phone are much easier to get and transport.
Click here to get Dr. Jason Reed’s exclusive list of medication questions you MUST ask your doctor, for FREE!
Share Your Story
Do you keep your prescriptions in something other than the original container? Also, please share and tips or tricks you have used. Chime in below with your comments and thoughts.