Rhode Island has become what is believed to be the first state in the nation to approve regulations that allow its residents to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada (search).

The state Health Department's new regulations filed Thursday will take effect in 20 days. Barring a legal challenge, the new rules will permit residents to import through the mail or by private shipper prescription medications from Canada.

The Health Department was forced to amend the rules after the Legislature passed a law this summer allowing the licensing of Canadian pharmacies.

Rhode Island's new law conflicts with the federal ban on drug importation (search), but it is unclear whether the Food and Drug Administration will take action against the state. The FDA says it cannot guarantee the safety of medicines sold through foreign pharmacies.

The FDA has not stopped states from setting up Internet sites to help consumers buy drugs through Canadian pharmacies and it has not gone after cities and towns, including Boston and Springfield, Mass., that have been purchasing drugs from Canada for their employees and retirees.

State Attorney General Patrick Lynch has said he won't block the Rhode Island law from being implemented, but has warned that it might violate federal statutes. He has, however, called on the federal government to permit and regulate the importation of drugs from abroad.

Prescriptions drugs are often cheaper in Canada and other countries because of government price controls. Congress has considered legalizing the import of prescription drugs but has met strong opposition from the administration and the pharmaceutical industry.

In Rhode Island, the debate has been intense as seniors lobby for relief from soaring drug prices. Scores of residents have taken bus trips across the border to buy the medicines, and Secretary of State Matt Brown has gone on some of those journeys.

Opponents, including representatives of the pharmaceutical industry, maintain that the new law will lead to unsafe drugs, job losses and a breakdown in patients' relationships with their medication provider.