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And About the Other Drugs

Tourism can take some strange turns. Every year an estimated 40 million people cross over into Tijuana to buy drugs: the pharmacy kind. That's right.
January 1, 2000, 12:00am

Photo: Ivan Diaz Robledo

“The Association of Pharmacies (+52 (664) 685-0170) in Tijuana can be of help to those wanting to check whether pharmacies are legitimate, although there is not always a qualified or English speaking person available to take the call.”

Tourism can take some strange turns. Every year an estimated 40 million people cross over into Tijuana to buy drugs: the pharmacy kind. That’s right. Forty million people—as in the population of a good-size country such as Spain—all running amok across the border and then diligently forming straight lines at Mexican pharmacy counters to buy up antibiotics, Viagra, antacids, Retin-A, Renova, OxyContin, Vicodin, Valium, Percodan, codeine, birth-control pills, fertility drugs, drugs for ulcers, drugs for cancer, drugs for kicks, drugs for high blood pressure, drugs for low blood pressure, drugs for things to go up, down, or maybe round and round: You name it (or point at it if you flunked Spanish in high school), you got it, with a 20 to 60 percent discount. And you thought people only liked Tijuana because of its cheap tequila and zebradonkeys. C’mon.

There they are. The thousands of pharmacies of Tijuana. Right next to the souvenir shops and the bars, in the most touristy areas of the city, pharmacies thrive. Rumor has it there are even tour buses on the other side of the border advertising “Mexican drug runs”; the organizers help you find the great bargains at the good places.


But there is no guide really needed. Supposedly some of this stuff requires a prescription from a Mexican doctor (US prescriptions are not valid here), but that too is optional in most cases.

Photo: Ivan Diaz Robledo

Most clients are older Americans without health insurance, who cannot afford the full cost of medicine. Other clients are the younger kind that likes popping painkillers and drooling and grinning idiotically. And then there are those (not so young, not so old) Americans addicted to sedatives (estimated at a whopping four million) who sometimes enjoy shopping here.

Of course on your way back to Gringolandia you are supposed to declare medication and produce a prescription in your name, proving that you have less than 90 days’ worth of legal drugs on you. And some do get stopped, sometimes even fined. But the number of people going through the border makes it impossible to control the flow of medication: United States Customs agents have been quoted in the press admitting that if they “even tried to enforce conflicting American regulations, we would have to inspect every shaving kit and fanny pack, backing up traffic beyond the horizon.”

Business is so damn good that authorities on both sides of the border worry that counterfeit medicine could take over, copying the infiltration methods of the international narcotics trade, and leaving the drug lords with a nice healthy side business of tens of thousands of sales a day and a few extra million dollars a year—you know, as pocket money for the kids to go to the Gap in San Diego.


But wait, it is not only the pharmacies getting the action: Take a look at the pet stores and other veterinary suppliers. Among the kitty litter and the puppy food there are boxes and boxes of steroids and testosterone: paradise itself, probably, for those whose idea of beauty runs in the Schwarzenegger vein. Of course these Popeye magic pills are supposedly meant for horses and cows and maybe even chickens, but all those gringo guys crowding the vet and ranch suppliers aren’t likely to be into farming.

And then there is another very different type of person that makes the rounds through the Tijuana pet shops: usually older people without the muscles, often with Australian accents, looking for pentobarbital.

Pentobarbital—with brand names like Nembutal and Sedal-Vet—is for anesthetizing animals such as cows. It is also what veterinarians mostly use when they put poor old or unwanted Fido to sleep. And downing a little bottle is also a way of getting rid of every physical and metaphysical human pain—forever, might we add, and almost immediately.

Mexican Nembutal has become a synonym in Australia and other parts of the world for “the most trouble-free and painless form of suicide” for those with terminal illnesses and whose governments have decided it is not their right to say how much or how long they want their citizens to live and suffer. So books like

The Peaceful Pill Handbook


, written by Philip Nitschke, founder of the Australia-based NGO Exit International (promoting the best ways to go gentle into that good night of darkness forever), have brought a new type of tourists into town: the socalled “death tourists.”

Death tourists are already halfway to their destination—most of them quite advanced in age or illness—and yet they still get themselves on planes for 17 hours or so to buy their dose of cow medicine and take the drug back themselves, so as not to put anybody else at risk.

It must be a hard, long journey, but at least in Tijuana it becomes simpler: Pentobarbital is easy to find, and if one pet shop insists on a prescription, the next one probably won’t. A recent article in


, a Mexican newspaper, quotes one death tourist as saying that some places even have signs advertising “articles for Australians.” And if one does not speak Spanish, well, Señor Nitschke has added color photos to his book. So you just need to buy the book (or download it from his website for $75 US) and point your way into heaven, via Tijuana.