msnbc.com staff and news service reports

A federal judge granted the government’s request Thursday to shut down a Tulsa, Ok.-based pharmacy chain which helped Americans to buy cheaper prescription drugs imported from Canada. The U.S. District Court judge said the firm operating as Rx Depot breaks the law and the quality of the drugs may be unreliable.

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U.S. District Judge Claire Eagan on Thursday said the company violates a federal law that allows only pharmaceutical manufacturers to bring drugs into the country.

The order requires the company to close its 85 storefronts nationwide immediately, said its lawyer, Fred Stoops.

The ruling was a victory for the U.S. government, which had asked the court to stop Rx Depot from helping Americans purchase discounted prescription drugs from Canada. The FDA has warned that drugs from other countries do not have the same assurances of safety as those regulated by the United States.

But it was also seen as a blow to customers who use the company to purchase less expensive medicines. It also could affect cities and states nationwide that are considering allowing employees to import drugs in order to cut rising prescription costs.

Judge Claire Eagan in Oklahoma ruled that Rx Depot had 10 days to send a letter to its customers informing them specifically that the company’s “business violates the law and that the safety, purity and efficacy of drug products obtained through (them) cannot be assured.”

Seeming to anticipate a consumer backlash against her order, the judge wrote,“This court is not unsympathetic to the predicament faced by individuals who cannot afford their prescription drugs at U.S. prices.”

“However, the defendants are able to offer lower prices only because they facilitate illegal activity determined by Congress to harm the public interest,” she wrote.

Prescription drugs are usually cheaper — often a fraction of U.S. prices — in neighboring Canada. But U.S. regulators have opposed efforts in Congress to create an importation plan that supporters say would particularly help the elderly pay for medicine.

At the FDA’s request, the Justice Department asked Eagan to issue the injunction against Rx Depot. The judge found the company “openly and notoriously” violated the law.

Eagan said in her ruling that Congress is the best forum to address the high cost of prescription drugs.

William Hubbard, the FDA’s associate commissioner, said the ruling was “clearly an affirmation of the FDA point of view that these drugs are potentially unsafe.”

“We think this sends a clear signal to any of these businesses that would put profit ahead of safety that they are not going to be allowed to threaten public health,” said Hubbard in an interview.

But Hubbard also said the decision may push Congress to seek new ways to get safe medicines to Americans who can’t afford them.

An estimated 1 million to 2 million Americans buy Canadian drugs through the Internet, storefront operations or by crossing the border — saving as much as half of the U.S. cost.

Rx Depot operates via storefronts that send customers’ prescriptions to Canada, and a Canadian pharmacy then ships the medicines directly to the customers.

Named in the government suit are Rx Depot Inc., Rx Canada, Rx Depot President Carl Moore and Secretary David Peoples.

Rx Depot said in a statement on its Web site that the company would appeal immediately and urged customers to call lawmakers to voice their “outrage” at the “injustice.”

The chain’s founder, Carl Moore, said in an interview he was “devastated” by the ruling, but would comply with the judge’s order if another court does not block the decision.

“There’s a drug crisis in this country due to the pricing and price gouging that goes on,” Moore said. “I’m going to do my part to see drug prices lowered in this country.”

Springfield, Mass., Mayor Michael Albano, who had testified on Rx Depot’s behalf, said Thursday he was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling. His city expects to save $9 million through a voluntary program in which employees get their drugs through Canada.

The government also may seek legal action to shut down another business, CanaRX Services Inc., the FDA’s Hubbard said. That company runs a Web site from which consumers can order medicines from Canadian pharmacies.

On Thursday, the FDA informed CanaRx Services Inc., the business supplying prescription drugs to Springfield, that its operations are illegal.

A CanaRX official was not immediately available for comment. In a letter sent to the FDA in October, the company said its business “creates no risk beyond that faced by U.S. consumers conducting similar transactions domestically.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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