US President George Bush signed legislation making it legal for Americans to transport prescription drugs from Canada, providing they do not import more than a 90-day supply, and end the practice of seizing packages posted from Canadian pharmacies.

The relaxation of the laws on drug imports came with the passage of the 2007 Homeland Security Appropriations bill, although some believe the concession does not go far enough and that the Food and Drug Administration should drop its opposition to allowing US consumers access to the global marketplace for prescription medicines.

The move comes at a time when public support of drug importation is high, at least according to a poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal on September 15. This showed that 80% of Americans support allowing people to import prescription drugs, and four out of five agree that the law banning pharmaceutical imports is intended to protect drug companies' profits.

Opponents of drug importation have argued that the practice creates a weak link in the medicines supply chain, potentially allowing counterfeit drugs to enter the USA. And the new law has raised fears in Canada of a ‘drug drain’, that could lead to shortages in some medicines.

The President’s move was swiftly criticised by the pharmaceutical industry, with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) saying that the measure was a “first step down a dark and dangerous road,” according to a report on the FDAnews service.

But Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was behind a state programme allowing Illinoisians access to drugs made in Europe and Canada, said the move was a first step in preventing American citizens from bankrolling the pharmaceutical industry through the payment of inflated prices.

The I-Save Rx programme allows savings of 25% to 80% on common prescription drugs, he said, but around 1% of packages imported into the USA have been seized at the border – with no evidence that any unsafe medicines have been shipped, according to Blagojevich.

However, critics of the programme said the plan had not been a success, supplying drugs to less than 4,000 people at a cost of $1 million to set up.

“For decades, pharmaceutical companies have put the squeeze on consumers across the USA by making them pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. There is no excuse for putting people’s health at risk just to protect drug companies’ profit margin,” wrote Blagojevich in a letter to Pres Bush.