From the man who popularized drug-buying trips into Canada for senior citizens comes a new idea: Use a 19th century treaty to allow imported discount drugs to be sold on the Flathead Reservation.
Last week, Whitefish farmer and former Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate Brian Schweitzer pitched his idea for a pharmaceutical re-import business to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council.
At the very least, his proposal is intended to mock an industry that exports pharmaceutical drugs to Canada where they are sold for far less than south of the border. And perhaps, says Schweitzer, the tribe will get rich and the people of Montana could purchase medicine more cheaply.
“Win, lose, or challenge, it’s all good public relations,” says Schweitzer.
In 2000, Schweitzer made national headlines when he organized bus caravans of senior citizens to Canada and back, each of whom returned with a 90-day supply of medications bought at a fraction of their price in this country. The attention helped Schweitzer nearly defeat incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R–Mont.), who started the race with a significant head start in name recognition and fundraising.
Schweitzer deferred questions about a possible bid for the Governor’s Mansion, saying he has a farm and family to care for, and asked rhetorically if anyone had seen his name on a ballot recently. Nevertheless, the overtones of a political campaign were clear.
“I’m looking for loopholes because Congress won’t do its job,” said Schweitzer. “If our representatives won’t do their job, maybe we should turn to the first Montanans.”
Schweitzer suggested the tribal council send an individual across the border to purchase drugs wholesale, or perhaps set up a local franchise to test the tribes’ sovereign rights under the Hellgate Treaty of 1855. Doing so would force the federal government to reconcile drug costs and the exemption of the pharmaceutical industry from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Council members expressed interest, but didn’t dwell on his suggestion that they might gain a $100-million foothold in the $100-billion-a-year industry. “It does sound like it would reduce costs to our elders, our precious elders,” said Council Chairman D. Fred Matt.
The council referred the issue to tribal attorney Ranald McDonald, who said he would review the case law on the subject, including the Jay’s Treaty of 1794 between England and the United States, which permits unfettered trade between Indians across the border. MacDonald expressed skepticism that the federal government would allow such an enterprise, but agreed to look into it.
“This isn’t even in the ballpark of the most wacky proposal we’ve received,” McDonald said. “This deserves some scrutiny.”