Drugstore Caballero

A recreational-drug user since the late Sixties, my friend Skippy is a man who likes his pills. So I wasn't exactly surprised when, grinning from ear to ear, he triumphantly whipped out a bottle of the prescription muscle relaxer Soma.

What did surprise me was his explanation of how he scored this particular batch of pills. During a trip to Tijuana, he'd bought them in a drugstore and carried them back into this country--all very above board and legal, he insists.

"If you've never been in one of those farmacias before, it's really a wild scene," Skippy tells me, still beaming over the ease with which he was able to buy a 100-tablet bottle for just $12.

"It was unreal, being able to walk up and buy prescription muscle relaxers just like you'd get some aspirin at Osco," marvels Skippy. "We came back through customs, the guy just sort of looked in the bag and waved us through. I still can't fuckin' believe it!"

Neither can I. In an era of "Just Say No!" and zero tolerance, it sounds inconceivable. Can it really be possible to score recreational prescription drugs in Mexico and legally carry them out, right under the noses of U.S. Customs inspectors?

Strangely enough, the answer appears to be a resounding "ASi, si!"
And for that, American pill freaks like Skippy can thank the likes of Betty and Bob Winnebago, those thrifty retirees who flock to Mexican-border towns to stock up on bargain-priced prescription medications, spending a fraction of the amount they'd pay for those same drugs in the States. In the process, they have inadvertently opened a Pandora's medicine chest, exposing a hazy loophole in U.S. Customs regulations that now has untold numbers of recreational pill poppers scrambling for the border (see related story on page 22).

As a result, penny-pinching senior citizens like the Winnebagos aren't the only Americanos prowling the aisles of border-town farmacias these days. Today, they're liable to rub shoulders with a much-younger breed of turista; pharmaceutical fun seekers who are far less concerned with the low cost of drugs than their ready availability, south of the border.

With all the antidrug hoopla that's engulfed the country in recent years, I'm still having trouble fathoming the idea that the United States is turning a blind eye to what appears to be a Mexican "prescription for hire" racket. And that's why an invitation to participate in a recent Phoenix-Nogales pill run proved to be just what the doctor ordered.

Friends and co-workers apparently think so, too. When I reveal plans for the trip, I'm besieged with their requests for diet pills, tranquilizers and sleeping capsules.

"Maybe next time," I tell them, wondering whether there will really be a next time.

The pharmaceutical pilgrimage begins early one Saturday morning in a deserted downtown parking lot. It's where a co-worker named Ed and I have agreed to meet our guides, two veterans of several Phoenix-Nogales farmacia runs.

"Welcome to our south-of-the-border barbiturate bonanza!" booms our pseudonymous host Neil O'Hara. The name, as it turns out, is not only a tribute to Neely O'Hara, Seconal-scarfing heroine of Valley of the Dolls, but a preview of the over-the-top tone of our entire trek.

If there is a pill-head "profile," neither of our hosts would seem to fit it. Neil works for a Fortune 500 company and his pal, Oscar, in the public sector. With the exception of Neil's flair for theatrics, both are middle-class, face-in-the-crowd types who could easily be any guy you work with. Both of them just happen to sleep easier at night knowing they have a bottle of tranquilizers in the medicine cabinet--and a pharmaceutical, pick-me-up tablet on the nightstand.

A vocal proponent of what he jokingly calls a "chemically controlled-care concept" (something others might call plain, old-fashioned "drug abuse"), the 34-year-old Neil has a half-dozen Mexican pill-shopping sprees under his belt. Learning of my curiosity about the subject, Neil has asked us to join him and his pal Oscar on yet another "pill posse."

The individual purposes of our trip are varied. My goal is to find out if what I'm hearing is true; that Americans can easily bring Mexican prescription drugs back into this country that they would otherwise have great difficulty obtaining through legitimate medical channels.

My colleague Ed, meanwhile, has a much-less academic motive: Stressed out, he simply wants to score a bottle of Valium.

"It's a pharmaceutical fiesta down there," promises Neil as we climb into the van. "Yellow jackets, black beauties, reds, Christmas trees! You want it, a Mexican doctor will write a 'script for it. Prozac paradise, here we come!"

As the van hurtles southward, Neil gleefully recounts his first visit to a Nogales medico a couple years back. Since neither he nor Oscar could pass a freshman-Spanish exam, the pair communicated with the doctor in "Spanglish," resorting to theatrics of the sort rarely seen outside of Aztec-wrestling mummy movies. Oscar reportedly writhed around in fake agony, while whimpering, "The doctors in the norte, they will not give us the medication that gives us the relief."

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Dewey Webb