Basic American Terminology
In the US, the most common word for somewhere that fills “Rx” orders from a physician is called a drugstore. However, pharmacy is also quite common, and indeed is the preferred term when specifying one place in a larger building, such as within a hospital or a supermarket.
If there is any difference between drugstore and pharmacy, it is that a pharmacy is used only for filling these Rx scripts, whereas a drugstore also sells items like first-aid supplies and especially assorted toiletries (toothbrushes and toothpaste, razors and shaving cream, deodorant, etc).
If you enter a drugstore looking to get a doctor’s order filled, you look around for the pharmacy department inside, because the pharmacy is just one area of a drugstore. I have occasionally found drugstores that have no pharmacy. These are glorified convenience stores with snacks, drinks, toiletries, and cosmetics, but no controlled substances to dispense. Strange but true.
The term druggist is perhaps somewhat less common than pharmacist, but both are heard. The drugs industry as a whole is sometimes referred to as “big pharma”.
Written orders from a physician are called prescriptions, or particularly within the health-care industry itself, just plain scripts. Although a doctor’s orders may well include things other than medical drugs, that’s what one typically thinks of a prescription as being for.
So you’d “drive down to the drugstore to pick up some prescriptions”, or more briefly, to “get some scripts filled”. If you were already at a hospital, you might stop into its pharmacy down the hall on the way out to do the same. The colloquial meds is often heard instead of drugs.
Beyond being used to mean the piece of paper from your doctor, prescription is also used in America to mean the contents of the little bottles, tubes, and packets that one receives in exchange for that piece of paper. So one might unremarkably say, “I keep all my prescriptions in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, or in my dop kit when I travel.” That is specifically talking about the drugs (or meds) themselves, not about pieces of paper. If disambigation is needed, the other kind would be written prescriptions.
The British term chemist is utterly unknown in America, and you would be mistaken for someone looking for some sort of chemical-supply shop if you were to ask for a chemist. The word apothecary is recognized and unambiguous, but virtually unused. It sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but would be more apt to draw a smile than confusion.
However, the word apothecary is still sometimes used, especially in trade names, by compounding pharmacies as a way of distinguishing themselves from run-of-the-mill retail pharmacies. A compounding pharmacy mixes up special-purpose custom concoctions under a physician’s orders, or to provide the same drug in some other form than a retail pharmacy provides.
Where you can still find them, old-fashioned drugstores, especially in small towns and villages of the American Midwest, besides having pharmaceuticals and toiletries, also offer a counter/bar with round stools lining it where they would up breakfasts and light lunches, and usually close in the afternoon. Typical fare would be (usually cold) sandwiches like chicken-, ham-, or tunafish-salad, served with a dill pickle spear and chips. In some places these are called dairy bars, although those can also occur outside drugstores.
The main reason to go to such old-fashioned drugstores is to partake of their soda fountain, from which they would dispense such marvelous confections as: ice-cream sundaes and banana splits; mixed-to-order chocolate, cherry, strawberry, or lime sodas (much better than bottled pop, which by definition is never made from scratch like a fresh soda must be); and ice-cream sodas like root-beer floats. These are now rare but not entirely unknown.
It is possible the the specific bigram buying drugs suffers from a social stigma which the word drugs itself used in other constructions does not. For example, among people where there is no chance of confusion, saying you need to pick up some drugs is by no means uncommon, particularly in the retired and elderly. It’s certainly the normal word used by my grandparents in their 90s, and often by my parents nearing 70. They know what they’re talking about between themselves, and drugs doesn’t carry the stigma it may for younger folk. Nonagenarians make for unlikely narco-traffickers in most societies.
With a younger crowd, who might be more apt have some acquaintance with recreational drug users, the term medicine is more common, and this is quite often colloquially shortened to just plain meds. Meds is a pretty common term: I’ve heard nurses use it, especially with children. You would not likely tell a child that it’s time to take his drugs; it would be more common to tell him that it’s time to take his meds, or if you’re being formal, then his medicine.
Medicine is also used for over-the-counter drugs, those available without a physician’s written order. Note that OTC drugs/meds are routinely sold at common retail outlets other than pharmacies alone, such as at supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations.
In American states where so-call “medical” marijuana has been legalized, a whole new set of euphemisms has cropped up. Businesses selling pot legally are known as dispensaries, as though they were an actual pharmacy, even though they are not. The pot they “dispense” (sell to you) is invariably referred to as medicine, especially in advertising. This is to distinguish their product from the black-market or garden-patch variety of the same substance, which is always called drugs, even though it is the very same thing, just acquired outside of prescribed legal channels.
Where I live, such establishments are more common than coffee shops, and one sees advertising for them everywhere. It’s really quite amusing. Patrons always talk about getting their meds, never about getting their drugs. High-school students, who aren’t allowed legal access to pot shops, always call it drugs itself, but it’s still the same thing.