Booker has deservedly taken a lot of heat for voting against an amendment sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders that would have created a reserve fund to allow Americans to buy cheap prescription drugs from Canada. Booker was far from alone—12 other Democrats, including Mark Warner and Patty Murray, voted against the bill—but Booker has received the bulk of the attention, partly because of his profile (dude is definitely running in 2020) and partly because Booker often casts himself as a progressive.
But Booker may not have anticipated the backlash he’s received. On Thursday, he sent a defensive statement to Jezebel justifying his decision:
I support the importation of prescription drugs as a key part of a strategy to help control the skyrocketing cost of medications. Any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards. I opposed an amendment put forward last night that didn’t meet this test. The rising cost of medications is a life-and-death issue for millions of Americans, which is why I also voted for amendments last night that bring drug prices down and protect Medicare’s prescription drug benefit. I’m committed to finding solutions that allow for prescription drug importation with adequate safety standards.
The safety argument has been used before, a favorite of the American drug industry and its allies in Congress—but it’s especially egregious after the Cures Act, which was passed last fall and undermines the FDA’s ability to enforce drug safety. Bills to lower the cost of drugs have been routinely killed using this argument, but it is premised on the idea that imported drugs don’t meet American safety standards. This is silly, given that Americans already import drugs from Canada illegally and it hasn’t resulted in a public health emergency. Similarly, the Canadian drug industry doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being dangerous. In many cases, Canadian drugs are made in the same places as ones sold in the United States, except here they are sold for a significantly higher price. Killing the amendment also prevented debate that could have led to the kind of safety structures that Booker wanted to include—if he wanted to fight for drug safety, he could have waited.