By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Waiting to cross the border into the United States with hundreds of pills in a plastic bag in my underpants, I sometimes wonder: What will happen if I'm caught this time?
But not very often.
Mainly I think about snorting OxyContin, about how that coarse, pink powder starts working the instant it hits the back of my throat. Standing there in a line with hundreds of others moving slowly through Customs, I revel in the fast-acting nature of the muscular, manly, crushed narcotic, dreamily pondering how ripped I'll be by Chula Vista, downtown San Diego, the Mormon Temple.
Rarely do I consider the consequences of getting caught, and why should I? Over the past three years, I've transported Soma, Valium, Vicodin, OxyContin and other psychoactive drugs into Orange County at least 100 times with minimal hassle, sharing them with friends whose bottomless appetites for these substances are exceeded only by my own gross consumptive disorder.
I didn't entertain the negative possibilities this last trip, either, though I arrived to find police raiding a quarter of the 200 drugstores ringing this particular area of Tijuana. Instead, I plotted my next moves: snort, stash, drive the speed limit and deliver the rest of the booty to anxious users eagerly anticipating my return.
Because the pills are personal stash, for myself and friends, I've never considered myself a drug smuggler. But walking across the border with narcotics stuffed in my underwear is, undeniably, smuggling; I admit that. It's also insane. Sometimes I wonder: Why do I do this?
But not very often.
Tijuana always brings a smile to my face, especially after a 90-minute ride along the faceless I-5 corridor. One step in, and you're confronted by bright murals, tables and racks of gleaming silver jewelry, gold-plated elephants, Hard Rock Café T-shirts, Aztec calendars and poorly constructed musical instruments. Mariachi sounds emanate from passing cars, colliding with the booming American rap and rock pervasive in the city's clubs and cantinas.
A sewer-like stench travels on the thick breeze and challenges the olfactory sense, but it carries with it the delicious scent of onion; pepper; cilantro; charred, seasoned meat and fish; coffee; herbs; and cigars. There is also head-shaking poverty and despair. Decrepit, sun-creased women wearing thin shawls peddle gum, candy and Mexican sweets. There's an abnormal amount of amputees, as well as what you'd expect in beggars; shoeless, tattered children; con men; and whores. I find this adds to the allure.
There are restaurants, bars, liquor stores, strip joints, markets and shops, but after your first few footsteps across the border, you're in Pharmacy Central. Nearly 200 establishments in a six-block area cater to the various desires and needs of the pharmacology-savvy. Many of the stores look the same. It seems every one is named "American Pharmacia," "Border Pharmacia" or "Discount Pharmacy." They soap their windows with their prices, all ridiculously low to Americans accustomed to paying at least four times more. (A month's worth of Prozac will cost the uninsured almost $200 in the States; in Mexico, it's 50 bucks.)
Glass counters line both sides of the aisles; inside are various shampoos, lotions and salves, candy, cigarettes, diapers, cheap booze, and aspirin. On the walls behind the glass are Prozac, Claritin and anti-aging medicines. I've shared the counter with senior citizens filling legitimate prescriptions; a man in a wheelchair on a respirator buying something he hoped would prolong his life; and a couple from Massachusetts blown away by the cheap prices on Valium, Vicodin, Soma and OxyContin. The clerk assures the man there's no trouble getting his stuff back into the U.S. He's not concerned about the Valium and such, but he is worried about the bottle of anabolic steroids he keeps putting into and retrieving from his pocket.
I'm there to buy psychoactive substances, drugs that give you a buzz.
I've loved getting buzzed since I first sniffed glue in 1967. I graduated from that messy venture into acid and pot and a couple of years ago began toying with angel dust, Seconal, Tuinol, Quaalude, Valium, Librium, Placydil, Sopors, Dalmane, Mandrakes, Ts and Bs, loads, Thorazine, and all manner of uppers, downers, screamers, pleasers, sidewinders and flippers. I took Belladonna, mescaline, psylocybin, peyote, MDA, DMT, Ecstasy, ketamine, ether, nitrous and LSD—blotter, liquid, gel and sugar cube. I shot heroin, speed, coke and downers, and I smoked crack and meth. A close friend who became a pharmacist once brought me an opium suppository. Excusing myself to the bathroom, I slipped the silly bullet into my absurdly accepting anus and spent the next three days nodding, drooling, itching and allowing lit cigarettes to burn the space between my fingers.
Yet painkillers, or analgesics, were an acquired taste. I used heroin in the Navy in the early 1970s, when West Coast GIs could easily acquire the great China White, but I disliked the nausea and nodding. I left opiates alone for years. Then I injured my back and quickly discovered the true power of analgesics. Once you get past the nausea and itching, analgesics are some of the most pleasant of all drugs. Painkillers kill pain: physical, psychic, emotional; you can function on them, too, creating a perfect antidote to the bummer job. Demerol, Dilaudid, Vicodin, codeine, Lortab, Norco, Percodan, OxyContin and hosts of less powerful pain-killing drugs are opiates and originate from psychoactive sap found in the poppy flower. In recent years, Vicodin—hydrocodone mixed with buffers—was the strongest opiate pill available by prescription. Then came OxyContin—with no buffers, only the more powerful chemical oxycodone. These are my current analgesic painkillers of choice.
It is simple to secure them if you know the right pharmacies. You tell them what you want, they retrieve it and place it into baggies, and you stuff them into your pants right there.
After scoring, I sometimes patronize a sports bookie and pick up betting slips to make it appear to the border patrollers that I've been gambling. I soon realized this was an incredible waste of time and energy; instead, I simply joined the pedestrian line re-crossing the border into the United States. On occasion, I've stopped in a fetid pay toilet and snorted OxyContin, a powerful time-released painkiller that provides a heroin-like high when crushed and sniffed. That's always such a bitch, though, smashing the hard pink pills between two quarters, rolling up a dollar bill and pulling hard with my nose, creating a unmistakable sound any of the other miscreants in that smelly hole could easily recognize.
Depending on day, time and other circumstances, the line leading back into the United States from Mexico requires anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes to traverse. You can also rent a bike for $5 and cross the border more quickly. Normally—because I've spent every penny on drugs—I avoid the bikes and walk over.
The line stretches and bends, stops and moves again. If you've ever spent an hour in an amusement park line, that's what it's like returning on foot from Mexico. On sidewalks and through a small corridor, you pass private security guards, INS agents, American soldiers and a metal detector before reaching a final counter manned by some kind of border patrol agent. He may ask a few questions or just one, and he'll typically send you on your way, provided you say the right thing. I've used numerous excuses: partying, gambling, shopping, whoring. I'm returning from the dentist or eye doctor. Once, I told the guard I was going back to get my dad's wallet. The old man's so paranoid he didn't bring it with him into Mexico. I told the guard my dad was crazy; he needed his ID to get back into the country. (My dad lives in Florida, 3,000 miles and eons of wisdom away.) I've feigned illness, complaining to the agent I ate something bad. I came to Mexico for the $15-per-carton cigarettes. I had the Diamondbacks or the Patriots. I was cashing my winning Lakers' parlay. I had money on War Emblem in the Preakness.
If you think all of this has changed post-Sept. 11, I can tell you this: I've noticed no change whatsoever. A few months ago, I was behind a Jordanian, an Egyptian and an Israeli, apparently all friends on holiday. All I could think was how long it was going to take to process these guys, but the Customs people issued them right through like everyone else—including me.
"What are you bringing back from Mexico, today, sir?" the border functionary typically asks, sometimes also inquiring into your citizenship or place of birth.
"Nothing this time," I say. "Just doing a little gambling at Caliente."
He replies, "Have a nice day," and I do.
I've had trouble crossing the border just twice. Once, I foolishly admitted to an agent I was returning to the U.S. with legitimately purchased Prozac, neglecting to mention the 90 Percodan stuffed in my pants.
"Where's your prescription?" she asked.
"I left it at the pharmacy, of course," I replied.
"Sir, I am confiscating these pills," she said. "It's illegal to bring Schedule I drugs across the border without a prescription."
"But it's Prozac, and I have a prescription," I said. "I left it with the pharmacist, like you're supposed to."
"You're welcome to go back to the pharmacy, get a copy of the prescription and return for your pills," she said.
That was the last time I claimed anything at the border. Another time, an agent took note of my bulging pockets and asked what I had in them. "My medication," I replied, plopping down nine flats of Percodan in front of him. He closed his terminal and issued me into a backroom. Busted. I saw handcuffs and bars in my future. But, strangely, several officers simply interviewed me, then returned all 90 Percodan and released me, cautioning me always to retain a copy of my prescription.
Since then, I have brought everything back stuffed in my drawers.
I usually make the 90-mile trek to Tijuana fearlessly. Motoring south on Interstate 5 past San Juan Capistrano, I'm thinking about the Mexican drugs. San Clemente, San Onofre, the immigration checkpoint, Mexican drugs. Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, Cardiff by the Sea, Del Mar, Sea World, downtown San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, Mexican drugs. I'm consumed now and totally in the groove when I reach the last U.S. exit—Camino de la Plaza. I park and walk the pedestrian bridge to the revolving barred gate allowing me into Mexico. Now, I simply use a pharmacy not 100 yards from the border and expect the same quick, efficient service.
But something changed a few weeks back, the last time I went to Mexico. That time, I arrived to find Mexican police and health inspectors raiding drug stores. I learned later that three pharmacies had been shut down for illegally dispensing veterinary medicines, tranquilizers and "date rape" drugs. Dozens of drug shipments were seized, and irregularities were detected at 26 of the 55 drug stores raided.
One clerk said the raid was a regular if random and unwelcome act perpetuated by functionaries needing to justify their positions. Another said he figured the police were taking preventative measures should lawlessness ensue following an upcoming World Cup soccer game between the U.S. and Mexico. Many store owners simply sighed and shook their heads, their resignation fueled by the experience of scores of such raids. The only official notice came from a state Health Department press release, which informed the public its inspectors were looking for irregularities at Tijuana drug stores.
Whatever the reason for the sudden appearance of cops, I got my drugs, but it was a hassle. First, I tried stores where there were no guards and was informed flat-out nothing was available. Nobody was talking or willing to part with any controlled substance—or even admit to its existence. "We don't carry that," clerk after clerk told me. Outside in the square, numerous hawkers invited me into their shops, tittie bars or restaurants. One asked, "Cerveza, mi amigo? One dollar!" "I don't drink," I told him, "but I am looking for something else." "What do you need? I can get you anything," he said. But before I could answer, Mexican police stepped out of the shadows, demanding from him some sort of identification. When he failed to produce the correct papers, they hustled him off to some unknown but certainly ungodly location. I leave him, and immediately, another man approaches, claiming the same. "Come upstairs to the restaurant, sit down, have a drink, and I'll get you whatever you need," he said. I did, but suddenly it occurred to me this is becoming a nightmare. Like scoring weed in Santa Ana or copping LSD in Fullerton, I'm waiting on a drug dealer.
Anyone with rudimentary experience in drug use knows that addiction can cause physical, mental and emotional breakdown, shatter the future, break your life. While slowing everything to a second-at-a-time crawl, Soma and Valium also makes bad ideas seem good. During a particularly destructive and insane run a few years back, one buddy of mine wrecked his car four or five times, lost his license, and had his friends pull an intervention on him. He was so strung-out that he suffered a nervous episode days after getting off the drugs.
And then there is OxyContin. The FDA approved drug-maker Purdue Pharma LP's OxyContin in 1995. Taken orally, its construction releases the powerful narcotic oxycodone into the system over time. Chronic pain sufferers and many cancer patients hailed it as a godsend, but OxyContin also launched a subsidiary industry comprised of people who like to get high. Some users have traded their lives for it. In April 2002, the DEA (which, sure, has a stake in high numbers) implicated OxyContin as the direct cause or main contributing factor in 146 deaths and a likely contributor in an additional 318 deaths. In 88 of those cases, the victim also had moderate to high levels of alcohol in the blood.
But I ignore that and take OxyContin anyway because it's a great high. Though constructed of a brawny narcotic,the pills crush easily and slide nicely up the nose and down the throat. By crushing the pill, you break down its time-release component and get its full effect immediately. The first effect is the absence of any ache. Then you get an itch, which is so pleasurable to scratch that you can sometimes open sores on your arms and legs. Everything gets fuzzy and warm, and over time, the nausea develops into something pleasurable because it means you are getting off. Close your eyes on an OxyContin ride, and it's almost like tripping. Mandalas, minarets, Arabic figures, curved swords, baggy silks, shoes with upturned toes, flying carpets and other Eastern images slither in and out of your consciousness. Grand castles float on clouds of pink cotton candy. Angels land in your pockets. The most mundane thought becomes a product of genius. Sleep is wonderful. Most times, I fall so deeply and thoroughly into slumber that I wake hours later, still high, but somewhat unsure what has happened. On other occasions, I nod off for minutes at a time, waking only to scratch. Snorting OxyContin first thing the next morning starts the whole wonderful adventure over again. Beautiful stuff.
So I waited for the drug dealer, but paranoia set in. All manner of ugly scenarios crossed my mind, but there I sat. He could get me anything, he said, but the Somas, normally $40 for 100 pills, would now cost $100. The $12 OxyContin were now $30 each. Valium had gone up from $1 per pill to three bucks. The price of Vicodin was similarly inflated. Setting straight my priorities, I ignored the cops, making mental room to do the math.
"At those prices, I can only afford the Somas," I said. He returned 20 minutes later, handing me the pills tucked into a menu. I carefully concealed them before making my way to the pedestrian line re-crossing the border. It occurred to me that I might have just been set up, but I banished the thought from my mind.
The guy was accommodating, insisting I come to him every time I need something.
"Ask for José," he said.
In the past, you walked no more than three feet into Mexico before your eyes gravitated to a dozen discount pharmacias. Mexican men and women dressed in polyester white pants and lab coats beckoned you from their doors.
"Check out my prices, my friend! Thirty percent off everything!"
"Sir, we have everything you need!"
Normally, I smiled and waved, simply said no, thank you. That particular drug store didn't carry what I wanted. Now, I worry that no drug store will ever let go of the good stuff again. I'd like to believe the clerks who said that this was just part of the game. After all, I've only been doing this for three years, and they've probably been here for decades. Still, my access to Mexican narcotics may be severely compromised. I long for the days when money and the right small talk would allow me back into the USA with a crotch-load of stash.
Whether I continue smuggling is not entirely up to me. If the cops remain and pharmacists won't sell the dangerous drugs anymore, I'm certainly not copping off José again, waiting upstairs in a crummy cantina until he returns with overpriced pills. But Americans buying drugs in freewheeling Tijuana pharmacias add a great deal of money to the economy. How much? Lots. Tons. I can't imagine those places surviving if all they can sell is Claritin, Cipro or Retin-A. My bet is that unbridled selling returns soon—hopefully, the day I do. I sometimes wonder: When will I return—and what kind of drugs will I be able to get?
I think about that all the time.