DISCLAIMER: Before you read this, you need to know that I came to Colombia with respectable intentions. I didn’t come looking for drugs. I went two weeks without taking anything offered to me. I didn’t end up littering my room with dope because Colombia is a bad country, but because I am a bad person.
When I arrived in Medellín, my sinus infection was in full swing. Knowing that I would be spending most of my time in bed, I went out of my way and budget to book a room at a hotel in a very wealthy neighborhood. The whole area is covered in shopping malls, high-rise condominiums, and casinos, with a peppering of restaurants, pharmacies, business offices, etc. The avenue is a broad four-lane street with a broad divider in the middle and lined with large, green trees year-round. The trees will provide shade from the sun when it’s out, shelter from the rain when it rains, however, after the rain is over the water usually drains down on the pedestrians anyway. But in general the beautiful, green canopies are indicative of the shelter that this neighborhood provides to its residents.
The hotel did not disappoint. It apparently catered mostly to businesspeople and upper-middle class couples, so they were accustomed to both providing good service and minding their own business. The room itself also exceeded my expectations. It was laid out more or less like a furnished one bedroom apartment with a screen separating the livingroom from the bedroom. It didn’t have a kitchenette, but it did have microwave and minifridge and more towels than I would need.
I dropped my things around the room and, desperate with a massive pain right in the center of my skull, I trudged a block over to the pharmacy I had noticed from the cab. Like everything else that you would ever need, the pharmacy was a short walk from the hotel. When I arrived I told the pharmacist that I was having very severe sinus pain, and that I needed some assistance. He immediately pulled out a packet that looked very much like American Sudafed, familiar red and white packet with a foil panel of pills inside. I flipped it over and read the ingredients. I saw the word fenilefrina. I read enough Spanish and drug-ese to recognize phenylephrine.
I said “Do you have anything else, like pseudoephedrine?”
Between his English and my Spanish, we were getting nowhere. I thought about it like so many other drugs I had seen and I tried to just say it with an accent. “Sudoefedrina?”
The good news is that I hit the jackpot and I was the correct pronunciation in Spanish. The bad news is that he looked at me with his eyes wide and shook his head and said
“No no, es no posible sin-” followed by a bunch of other words I didn’t catch. He handed me the packet of phenylephrine again.
I immediately walked around the corner to a grocery store with a kindly pharmacist that also spoke more slowly and it was explained to me that you cannot buy pseudoephedrine anywhere in Colombia without a prescription. So again, they tell me, just take the phenylephrine.
For the record phenylephrine is garbage. For years, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine were commonly available to the general public. While some people would recreationally take ephedrine because it would give you a rush similar to adrenaline, pseudoephedrine was a commonly used decongestant, the active ingredient in Sudafed. No one gets a dependency to it. No one abuses it. The reason that pseudoephedrine is carefully monitored in the United States and apparently only available by prescription and Colombia, is because it is used as a precursor to make really bad methamphetamine.
What I mean to say is that methamphetamine can be made from scratch, as is often talked about on movies and television, such as Breaking Bad. However anyone who watched Breaking Bad–and remembers it well–remembers that at the beginning of the show, there were people scrambling to get something called “pseudo” from pharmacies and it just wasn’t possible to buy enough of it to make a large batch of methamphetamine. This pseudo that they’re talking about is pseudoephedrine.
While the show made it sound like it is the gold standard for making methamphetamine, this is actually a sad recourse that you would find. In the old days, only of really brilliant chemist, like Walter White, could make methamphetamine from scratch. Rather in order to make good methamphetamine, you would reduce ephedrine to a very crystalline methamphetamine. Of course I only know this because of what I’ve read in books. On the other hand, if you use pseudoephedrine, a common cold decongestant, you will instead produce a nasty yellowish crank, as it used to be called. Now I think that Americans commonly think of crank as a name for speed in general. However at one time people commonly referred to methamphetamine as meth or speed. People referred to that yellow garbage that came out of creepy hillbilly towns as crank.
In short, in a country where I could buy cocaine for 4 US dollars a gram just about anywhere, I could not find a nasal decongestant for the life of me. You might already see where I’m going with this, but if not: Come. Follow me.
I went back to my room, feeling defeated. I popped to phenylephrine tabs and waited. Of course they did nothing. Not only can you not make methamphetamines out of them, you can’t even unclog your sinuses with them.
Now I’m an American; This means that from time to time I am used to self-medicating. But I couldn’t do anything to fight the infection, because I also couldn’t get any antibiotics without seeing a doctor. I did try, but it cost a lot of time and money and, since I was going home in a few days, it just seemed silly to me to make that big of a deal of it. I decided to wait it out and treat myself. I drank lots of fluids, but I also drank a fair amount of Coke, trying to use the caffeine to maybe alleviate my sinus headache a little bit and possibly dry me up little. I realize this contradicts my theory of drinking lots of fluids, but it’s all I had to work with.
Then I remembered the coca leaves that I had bought in Bogotá. I had first tried coca leaves in 2008, while I was visiting Peru. Everyone told me that you have to chew coca leaves in the Andes Mountains, to treat altitude sickness. This is complete rubbish, but with enough cocaine in you, you don’t give a flying fuck about the altitude or your symptoms.
I remember going to the bed-and-breakfast in Cuzco and being served coca leaf tea which my father and I drank together and then they handed us a pouch of coca leaves, telling us to keep chewing them to acclimate to the altitude. I wanted to find out how they felt, as everyone would assure you that coca leaves are not cocaine. At the time I didn’t really understand enough about the chemistry of cocaine, so I believed them and I began just chewing the leaves as I was walking around. My father took a small bundle of leaves just to taste them and he didn’t seem to notice much of a difference. I put a lot of leaves in my mouth and I continued chewing wad after wad of them as we went for a long walk down to the town square.
So on our way to the beautiful church that is there where I could begin my studies in Quechua Christianity, I started to notice I was walking faster and faster. I seem to be breathing a little more deeply and quickly as well, presumably because I was walking so fast and because I was way up high in the Andes Mountains. And I was walking, and I was talking, and I was saying to my father, “I really enjoy this town, so far it’s really interesting to see all of the buildings like this I wonder what the church is going to be like wheredoyouthinkwe’llgetlunchdidyouseethisstatue, etc. etc.
In short, coca leaves, chewed in high enough quantities will give you a high very similar to dose of cocaine. The whole point of making cocaine is to extract the cocaine from the coca leaves.
So, as I said: I remembered my bag of coca leaves; That led me to a lot of experimentation.