Drugstore Caballero

Recreational prescription drugs put Mexican farmacias on the map--and American pill seekers on the road

Clearly savoring our apprehension, Neil adds his own less-than-reassuring touch: Singing under his breath, he's halfway through a lounge-act rendition of the theme song from Valley of the Dolls when the doctor's previous patient emerges from the examining room.

A casually dressed American woman in her late 20s, she appears mortified to discover a waiting room full of fellow "patients." So startled, in fact, that she practically shields her face with her purse as she bolts for the door.

Neil smiles. "She must need fast relief."
The doctor sticks his head into the room and gestures that he's ready for business. Eager to get this thing over with, I volunteer to go first. "Remember," hisses Neil, stage-motherlike. "Relief, you need relief!"

I follow the doctor through the thin partition that separates the two rooms. Outfitted with a desk, two chairs and (as far as I recall) no medical equipment, all the place needed was an overflowing ashtray and it could have doubled as an interrogation room at a police station.

All Neil's coaching flies out the window the minute the doctor asks me what sort of relief he can bring me. Chickening out on my quest for Valium (which, truth be told, I really wouldn't mind having, considering my present state of anxiety), I instead ask for Tylenol 3, a codeine-based pain reliever that, in the past, has been legitimately prescribed for a chronic back problem that occasionally flares up. (It will look better at the trial, I tell myself.)

The doctor asks a couple questions in fractured English. I point to my back and wince. He starts writing. I get the distinct impression that if a longshoreman were to request estrogen, this doctor would oblige him.

The entire consultation zips by as speedily as an order at McDonald's. And, like a fast-food transaction, there's even the obligatory upselling: When I hold up one finger to indicate that a single 30-pill bottle will be sufficient (I'm thinking of that trial again), he insists that two bottles will give "much more relief."

I marvel at my good fortune--in the States, I seem to have an uncanny knack for picking physicians who rarely prescribe anything stronger than aspirin. But the good doctor's pharmaceutical largess immediately becomes suspect; upon handing me the prescription, he gives detailed instructions on how to reach the only farmacia in town that will honor this particular 'script.

The entire consultation lasts five minutes tops. In fact, the doctor spends twice that much time scrounging up my change when he has to run down the street to break a $20 bill.

Ed's visit goes even faster. He's in and out of the office with a prescription for Valium in less time than it takes to watch another psychedelic Looney Tune.

En route to the farmacia, we pass a zombielike woman with huge hollows around her eyes. She's carrying a paperback pill reference book. Whether this woman is terminally ill or simply strung out really doesn't matter. Neil's "pharmaceutical fiesta" is rapidly turning into a first-class downer.

By the time we reach the pharmacy, any excitement surrounding this adventure has long since turned into creepiness. But if I'm nervous, no one in the Spartan store seems to notice. Chatting away, the two garishly made-up teenage girls manning the drug counter scarcely acknowledge our presence when we hand them our prescriptions.

Back out in the street, we compare notes. At $15, my Tylenol 3 is no bargain--about half the cost of the same prescription in the States, but three times what it'd be with my insurance plan's co-pay.

Ed hits the jackpot. His 90-tab prescription of ten-milligram Valium is $7, a 16th of what he'd have had to pay at a Phoenix pharmacy--assuming he could get anyone to prescribe it in the first place.

Having exhausted the conversational possibilities of pharmaceutical-comparison shopping, we face the inevitable and head back toward the border. On the way, Neil suggests a stop at a gift store to buy some Kahlua, a belt, trinkets--anything so we don't have to pass through customs carrying only prescriptions.

I'm freaked. If what we're doing is so legal, why the subterfuge?
"It just looks better," Neil mumbles under his breath.
The theme from Midnight Express reeling through the tortured corridors of my mind, I step up to the inspector's desk.

To call my passage through customs "anticlimactic" would be overstating the case. There were no drug-sniffing dogs. No drawn guns. Not even a rubber glove.

Instead, the uninterested inspector simply flipped open the bag I was carrying, hardly bothering to look inside before waving me through.

A few days later, Neil and I rehash our adventure. After a few minutes of chitchat, he asks whether I was up for another "Halcion holiday."

I tell him I'll pass. Although there's certainly an element of fantasy about walking into a drugstore and writing your own ticket, the reality of the situation had been downright depressing. Add to that the inconvenience of spending seven hours in a van and the gain simply wasn't worth the pain--or the painkiller.

To my surprise, Neil--Senor Pill Popper himself--agrees. In fact, he even seems relieved when I tell him I'm not interested in making a return trip.

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