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."

Roaring with laughter, Neil somehow manages to re-create the performance in the driver's seat, while simultaneously keeping the van on the road. Says Neil, "I could hardly keep a straight face."

From the sound of it, I'm surprised the doctor could, either. Still, he presented each of them with a prescription for both Valium and amphetamines.

"Can you imagine any doctor in this country writing a prescription like that today?" asks Oscar.

Which is exactly why the mood in the back seat is considerably less jovial than the festivities in the front seat, where Neil is now reenacting scenes from an After School Special about a teenage girl on drugs.

"Now you're sure this is legal?" asks Ed as we approach the border.
"Your doctor writes you a prescription and a pharmacist fills it," says Neil. "What's illegal about that?"

"But this isn't my doctor," counters Ed.
Neil flashes a wicked smile in the rearview mirror.
"He is if you give him $30."

Then, on a more reassuring note, he adds, "It is kinda scary your first time. This isn't your typical HMO."

After paying $4 to leave the van in a Burger King parking lot on the American side, we walk across the border into Nogales. My eyes are immediately riveted to a sign warning of the consequences of transporting "DANGEROUS DRUGS."

When I point it out to Neil, he shrugs. "'Dangerous' is a judgment call. We came here for 'relief.'"

Some relief.
It's been ten years since I've been to Mexico; 30 since I've visited Nogales. I've forgotten the poverty. Bands of skinny children swarm around us hawking Chiclets. Cradling a doll-like baby in one arm, a malnourished woman solicits handouts in a plastic fast-food cup. Just a few feet away, a zebra-striped donkey defecates in the street.

"Shit!" exclaims Neil, when we arrive at the shabby storefront where his doctor practices. "He's closed."

Taking this as some sort of omen, I suggest we call it a day.
"Are you kidding?" asks Neil, reaching for his wallet. "I've got his phone number here somewhere. He can be here in five minutes."

But, before he's able to locate the number, a Mexican guy accosts Oscar and mumbles something in Spanish.

"He knows another doctor who can see us, instead," says Oscar. "Let's go."
I feel cheap, dirty, scared. Wading deeper into this surrealist squalor, I suddenly experience one of those old "roach in the ashtray, flashing lights in the rearview mirror" adrenaline rushes of my youth.

Tossed into this same situation back in the early Seventies, I'd have been having the time of my life. Of course, back then, this trip would have been totally unnecessary. Pills were everywhere. At school. At parties. In the family hamper. (How I talked my way out of that one, I can't remember.)

But that was more than half a lifetime ago. Simultaneously exhilarated and appalled, I seriously question the wisdom of our seedy sojourn, even if it is being done under the guise of investigative journalism. But, before the good angel and bad devil on my shoulders have finished duking it out, we've arrived at the doctor's office--or "Stress Clinic" as the crudely lettered shingle reads. There's no turning back now.

Located in a small shopping arcade off the town's main drag, the doctor's office is like none I've ever seen. The tiny waiting room has all the ambiance of the customer-service counter at an auto-parts store--and a third-rate one at that.

A couple dingy, mismatched chairs are relics from the age of Herculon. There's a seriously out-of-whack Mediterranean-style Magnavox television dating back to the early Seventies; fluorescent pink and green bars strobe across the screen as Porky Pig stutters away in Spanish. The selection of reading material offers even less diversion--a back issue of Assembly Line Today and a conveyor-belt catalogue. A dust bunny floats across the floor.

After the shill disappears into the examining room, Ed mutters something about leaving. But before we can make a move, the shill and the doctor reenter the waiting room. After cursory pleasantries, the two men huddle together in a corner and chatter away in Spanish, occasionally acknowledging our presence by a hitched thumb or a suspicious glance over the shoulder. Were anyone to view a videotape of the scene, he would probably assume he was watching a dope deal going down. And that's exactly what he was seeing, albeit a "legal" one. The whole setup seems as transparently phony as the stripes painted on the "zebra" down the street.

Money changes hands. After collecting what appears to be a finder's fee, the shill leaves the office, presumably in quest of new patients. The doctor, meanwhile, disappears back into the examining room.

As soon as the doctor is out of earshot, Oscar makes a startling announcement. "If the federales show up and wonder what we're doing, here's the story: We've just brought in a friend who hurt herself in a dune-buggy accident in Rocky Point. And the minute they go in to see her, run like hell!"

Although Oscar later admits he was simply enjoying a joke at our expense, Ed and I immediately swap crazed glances; I mutter something about leaving immediately.

Stricken with paranoia, I can't believe I'm doing what I'm doing. We're in Mexico. To buy pills. And it's legal? Something seems wrong--terribly, terribly wrong.

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.

"The travel is a hassle," he concedes. Reluctantly, he also admits that "there is some truth to the story that when you have all these pills lying around, you take 'em."

He tells me how Oscar had become so dependent on Valium that he'd take three ten-milligram tabs each morning just to start the day.

And Neil himself? Well, there was that little problem with the amphetamines.
"After I discovered those diet pills, I could understand why chubby moms are so eager to get their hands on them," explains Neil. "Within 15 minutes, you are finding new uses for those vacuum-cleaner attachments. You have the drapery tool out and you are 16 again."

He sighs. "The good news is I went down three pant sizes. The bad news is I just couldn't stop vacuuming. I guess the trick is learning that you must respect these drugs."

But that lesson is apparently taking a little while to sink in.
Before signing off, Neil adds, "Hey, if you decide to run down to Nogales again, be sure to let me know, okay?"

I promise him he'll be the first to know.

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Dewey Webb