Weird scenes inside the drug mine

The problem with the War on Drugs isn’t losing, it’s not knowing the enemy

The salty, crystalline-white powder burns my nose.

Illustration By Sandra Hoover

Tasteless tears of effort leak toward my chin. A snotty backwash covers my tongue. It’s like trying to snort a Roman candle. It’s taken me six or seven minutes just to get the first two lines down. These aren’t heaping finger-long lines of coke, either. These are miserably tiny, thin little traces. I switch the straw between nostrils, hunch over the black coffee table and finish the last of it.

Immediately I’m displaced. Unbound.

The drug is called 2C-T-7. Who the hell knows what it stands for, but it’s a lousy name. It sounds like a statistic. A powdered enmity of calculus and confusion. It’s supposed to make LSD seem like seasoning salt.

My heart starts to swing and thump as though it were being slapped around by something with claws. I feel sweat. I feel terrified. I’m coming up way too quick, caving in while being launched somewhere new, cold and complicated. Something flashes. I jump back. I am my own lab animal.

“I think I took too much,” I tell Harry.

“Nonsense. Impossible,” he assures me. “Did you finish your line?”

I nod. “Three of them.”

Harry squints at me. His thin lips purse, his eyebrows raise—the closest thing to a smile I’ve ever seen from the guy. “Really?”

I nod.

He scratches his head. “Oops,” he says.

The next few minutes are just as intense as they are ridiculous and lonely. The world is on mute. I have no idea what’s going to happen to me. I realize that I might die, but that the dying might be a pure hallucination.

I watch as Harry gingerly sinks one of those tiny collectable state spoons into a little bag of waxed paper and starts setting up the next round of doses. “That’s 90 mg,” he says. “The most you’re supposed to do is like 30.” He looks around, the slight look of concern on his face starting to make me hostile. But it’s too late. Clickety clack. I am locked into the front car and heading up to the top of an unknown hill.

Harry points to his desk, indicating one of the drawers. “You might want to grab some paper and take notes.”

I do, sitting on top of the desk and trying to write what I feel.

I mean to write: Drug abuse is an extraordinarily complex picture. It can be examined politically, socio-economically, historically—or it can be snorted, shot, swallowed and inhaled. After a few minutes I look down at the page. All that’s there is a crappy little line drawing of a sports car underneath the words “POWERED BY PIG SHIT.”

I scream for help. Another bad idea, as I can’t seem to talk. I can hum, but I can’t hear myself. I seem to be able to whistle through my teeth, but that’s just the sound of my old silver fillings.

I watch Harry walk over and start talking to a girl who the 2C-T-7 tells me is some kind of a pixilated elf, something out of an old videogame. She seems to be standing in a shower of repetitive music. All I can catch are snatches of dialogue, slight information like: “Sunbathe or shoot tigers?"…"One-man crime wave” …"Retreat? Me?”

No idea how much time passes, but the drug intensifies. My friend Colin, a financial news reporter, comes over for some paper. He’s composing an op-ed letter to the Wall Street Journal, mumbling something about “the ferocious sea of subjectivity.” I show him my picture of the pig-shit-powered car. Without a word, his vivid expression capsizes into something unmanageable and manic. His eyes grow big, and he grabs the paper out of my hands, plops down on a tiny stool and starts to copy it.

I slough over to a space on the couch, close my eyes and look inside my head as though my eyeballs have just turned inward. Looking around is too intense—like being a housefly on LSD—just way too many images. The visuals seem to demand to be understood, not just admired. This isn’t the comfortable porch-swing ride of a couple hits of Ecstasy. Nor is it the earthy spring-light of psilocybin mushrooms or the instant Wonka-world of a metallic lung-full of DMT. This is like being interrogated in another language. Tortured under bright lights by elephants in uniform. Time warps, slows down, then speeds back up. This is something so new it has no need for a name; it’s gone past its own ability to understand. Just when I think I have it under control, I lean over the couch and vomit into a large planter holding a San Pedro cactus—a common but little-known legal source of mescaline that, incidentally, we cut up and eat the next weekend.

“psychonaut,” an explorer of inner space and a modern-day shaman, tonight playing medicine man to a group of restless musicians, art students, myself and some friends. To authorities, he’s just another manifestation of a growing nuisance—a junkie with a master’s degree. Until her death in 2000, his mother was a widely known figure in the New York City fashion world. He spends most of his time inside his apartment, smoking pot, recording music on his keyboard, reading out-of-print mythologies and thinking about it all. Sometimes he goes days without talking, and he never answers the phone unless you call back several times and scream at him on his machine."You must try this stuff,” he had written to me in a rare e-mail, going on to use phrases like “empyrean heights,” “gathering dusk” and “winding tapestry.” “It will cure you.”

Someone once noted that things and people that aren’t predictable keep our attention. Maybe “predictable” can also be substituted with “consistent.” There’s a fine line between, as Harry often spoke, “the sacred cognitive liberty of using ceremonial plants and substances to explore the complexities of the mind” and huffing a bucket of paint, and I’d seen him do both.

Harry’s a guy I once saw wearing a 100-microgram Fentanyl patch on his forehead, a transdermal pain reliever used by veterinarians to treat animals recovering from surgery. It’s a powerful drug, at least as potent as morphine, intended to last a week on the family pet. I watched as, holding a hot-water bottle up against the patch for a jolt, he soon caused in himself the very “wobbly gait” and “increased panting” warned of in the drug’s literature. Needless to say, Harry’s fondness for drugs, like his fondness for taking in wounded strays, was sometimes suspect.

It’s only a few months and three substance-related deaths before the DEA’s September completion of an emergency order placing 2C-T-7 on the Schedule I list of the Controlled Substances Act to avoid “an imminent hazard to public safety.” Harry’s New York studio apartment is crowded with about a dozen people who have enough faith in his judgment. A kind of sloppily assembled focus group. He has just gotten a shipment of the stuff from a now infamous online supplier of “poisonous non-consumables,” a gray marketplace of technically legal substances that range from dried skins of the Bufo americanus, a psychoactive poisonous toad, to Amanita muscaria, a legal, trippy mushroom.

“You have to read a release statement into the phone before they’ll ship anything to you,” says Harry.

I wondered about the psychoactive toad. I wanted to know how much psychoactive toad they moved on a given day. Where they got it.

“I think it’s roadkill,” says Harry.

I thought about it. Roadkill. I tell him about a kid in my high school who died after he huffed gasoline and then tried to smoke a cigarette.

“Eighty percent of his body,” I say, gesturing meaningfully, “Third-degree burns.”

Harry fails to see my point. “You wanna try the toad?” he asks.

risks, the perils, the ever-present possibilities of leaving certain zones and paths and basically destroying the universe if you sniff too much 2C-T-7, I am checking out this girl, a distractingly sharp-nosed Parsons student named Jenny. She is doing a paper on the oft-ignored world of “drug fashion,” a combination of her two favorite pastimes.

“There’s such a stigma with the whole cocaine thing,” she explains. “It’s like wearing squared heels or something.”

Illustration By Sandra Hoover

I nod.

“And, like, sitting in a black-lit room with Phish posters smoking out of a water bong is so ‘90s,” she laughs, then quickly stutters to cover her ass. “Unless you were trying to be, like, really ironic or something. Then I guess it would be different.”

cocaine ‘80s, 2C-T-7 was invented in the Santa Cruz labs of experimental chemist Alexander Shulgin, a wild sorcerer revered in the underground drug culture mostly for his role in re-igniting interest in the once-forgotten therapy drug Ecstasy. Dedicating his life to substances and their potential for freeing the human mind, 2C-T-7 was reported to be one of his personal favorites. The complex recipe for the drug and hundreds of others were first divulged in his books, PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story and TiHKAL: The Continuation, the Joy of Cooking for post-graduate basement pharmacists. Loaded with decades’ worth of research, Shulgin, setting himself up for a DEA raid, decided to publish his work rather than risk its being destroyed by, of all things, an overzealous government agency.apartment, someone says, “The aliens have arrived. And they’ve come in tiny capsules.”

McCarthyism, “marihuana” was “the assassin of youth.” People swore that smoking a joint had turned them into a bat and made them commit bloody murder. Call it paranoia. Nabokov said, “The pattern of the thing precedes the thing.”

During the Cold War, the War on Drugs was a close mimic in that the enemy was clearly defined and oh so well-known. In Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” America, crack dealers baited fishing hooks with candy and lollipops, casting their tainted wares toward innocent schoolchildren. Once caught, they reeled you into a crack house, stuck you with used hypodermic needles and tortured you with their strange glass pipes until you became a “base head.” Well-meaning teachers showed short films warning students not to “toot” any “nose candy,” stay away from “goofballs,” “Lucy” and “China white.” And only the worst kind of human slime messed around with PCP, “angel dust,” a drug so inherently evil in its chemistry as to make every user think he was Superman, immediately leaping from the highest building in town, more often than not with an armful of children. They had us believing the dealers were giving it away. “The first one’s always free,” they warned, always inadvertently giving some of us in the back row a twisted sort of hope.

The dealers down the street clad in gray trench coats and high-tops, unshaven, sporting rat-tails and dark shades—they were the enemy, easily recognized by their proximity to graffiti-covered walls and the tendency to hang around playgrounds, most noted in their uncanny ability to attract wayward basketballs to the underside of their sneakers, thereupon seducing any unsuspecting kid sent to chase the ball down into an endless spiral of “grass” and “ready rock” simply by smiling and asking, “Hey kid, wanna fly?”

Strikingly, today’s War on Drugs has morphed to mimic the present War on Terrorism, with its strange new substances, new technology, and its information-heavy necessities. Sometimes there’s just too much for the authorities to sift through. The enemy is constantly moving, engaging, moving away.

Think “shoe bomber” Richard Reed. Think Noelle Bush, the daughter of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and niece of President George W. Bush, hiding drugs inside her shoes after already being collared once for trying to score Xanax with a forged prescription.

Think Saudi Arabia, the pot of Middle East politics. Are they friend or enemy?

Osama bin Laden. Bufo americanus.

The new wars are barbed with foreign tongues, acronyms, and italics—dirty bombs of the language.

Liquid heroin is being smuggled into the country in the fabric of people’s shirts. The borders are much more porous than we ever considered. The thing about borders in the 21st century is that they exist only on maps.

the raw jungles and overgrown hamlets of South America’s cartel-land, pushing through the nightmare routines of murder, kidnapping, leftist guerillas, rightist guerillas, the new super-crops of cocaine and opium coming out of the region and the nearly $20 billion of U.S. money fluttering around like an army of moths trying to defend against it, “Jasper” makes two clicks of his mouse and orders enough over-the-counter codeine from a pharmacy in New Zealand to keep him stoned for the rest of the winter. The codeine comes in a pain medicine called Nurofen Plus. At 12.8 mg of codeine per pill and about $8 for a box of 48, it’s a cheaper and relatively safer alternative to buying anything off the street. In about a week, when the stuff arrives, he’ll spend an hour or two crushing and dissolving the pills in a bowl of cold water and straining out the ibuprofen and the filler and then further refining it into the more powerful hydrocodone with chemistry he found on the Internet. He’s into opiates. Proudly opening a closet door, he pulls a shower curtain and reveals a little opium poppy farm of lettuce-like seedlings glowing in a healthy dose of florescent light. “Papaver somniferum,” he says with a trace of gloat. “Poppy seeds. Three bucks a pound at the health food store.” The same little bluish devils that cause bagel-lovers to fail pre-employment drug tests are widely available in supermarkets and on the Net. While regular store-bought McCormick’s will sprout, they won’t be half as potent in rich morphine-like alkaloids as the genera sold freely online, on places like eBay. Since they contain no morphine (a dubious claim), they are perfectly legal until they hit the topsoil.

At my urging, “Jasper” does a quick search for “online pharmacy.” He gets three pop-ups and listings 1-20 of 1,040,000.

True, most online pharmacies sell only the minor stuff—Viagra, Propecia, Vioxx—and as long as there are cranky old people with arthritis or sex casualties too embarrassed to see their general practitioner for some Herpetrol or Wart-Get-Gone, there will always be a market for it, and the federal government seems able to do little about it. But there’s one drug available almost anywhere online that’s catching the attention of recreational users: Ultram.

Perhaps the easiest painkiller to get online, Ultram is a quasi-opiate with speedy euphoric effects at high doses, meaning, says Jasper, “like a box-full.” Jasper describes an Ultram high as pure acceleration—like having a 300-hp engine on a bumper car—but complains that the itch can be quite nasty. Not to mention the sexual dysfunction. “That’s where the Viagra comes in,” he says. Still, next to Vicodin, he lists Ultram as one of his favorite drugs.

“A commercial comes on telling me that if I buy drugs from a dealer I am supporting terrorism, murdering a federal judge, raping schoolchildren. If I buy a bottle of Vike, maybe I help some schlub at Merck buy another Lexus. I can live with that.” —Mike, Vicodin user. [Note: Vicodin is actually manufactured by Knoll Pharmaceutical Co.]

Like OxyContin before it (See: “Hick-Heroin Attacks Appalachia” and “Pill-Popping Rednecks Run Rampant"), Vicodin has been heralded by the media as the Next Epidemic for the New Century. But even those who can’t afford their own private quack to dash off a script for a vial of 750s every time they feel a headache coming on (Winona Ryder, Matthew Perry, quarterback Brett Favre) have a relatively easy time getting at it. Known to the Physician’s Desk Reference crowd as hydrocodone bitartrate, Vicodin is one of, if not the, most-prescribed level-three painkillers. At any given time, there’s enough Vicodin floating around to kill everything on the planet six times over. Well, maybe not, but each of those pills contains a hefty dose of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. And taking 20 pills a day, or roughly 10,000 mg of acetaminophen, will cost you your liver pretty quickly, especially if you mix it with a nip of booze.

Geoff, a former coke dealer who has found bigger profits in selling aftermarket prescription products, has customers who literally eat the white runic-"V” stamped pills right out of his hands. He gets up to $5 per pill, a consequence of the media (OK, irony noted) flashing its tits anytime the word “Vicodin” is mentioned, calling it an epidemic, reporting that thousands of patients are bankrupting Medicaid, raiding Granny’s medicine cabinet, throwing themselves down the stairs and setting themselves on fire for a script. It’s fashionable to have a stash. Pharmacies are being ransacked for pills. Users leave the money right there in the registers. Everyone in Hollywood keeps a bowlful on the coffee table. Oh, yeah. It’s practically common knowledge.

Geoff was introduced to the drug years ago by a girl whose father was a respected Utah physician and something of an ass-deep addict. “They had a closet full of sample boxes. Literally, stacked to the ceiling. I was looking for towels and I found El Dorado. There was enough junk in that closet to … “ His eyes glaze over, certainly twice. “Shit,” he remembers fondly. “Nobody hordes like a Mormon junkie. Nobody.”

supermarket, and the UNR kids are buying booze, their festive shouts and pre-party laughs blurred by the awkward thump of three teenagers dumping nine bottles of Vick’s 44 onto the conveyer belt at checkstand six. Also, a bag of red-hot Cheetos and some sugarless gum. “It’s gotta look legit,” snickers one. Their compulsive, semi-automatic coughing draws little more than the hurried gaze of the female checker. It’s almost midnight.

“It’s got to be the kind without the expectorant,” explains Shane, an 18-year-old legal-high enthusiast visiting from Vegas and hoping that his hyper-medical dose of Vicks will contain enough DXM to take him to a psychedelic, cherry-flavored Shangri-La known as “the third plateau.” The stuff tastes like someone mashing out a menthol cigarette on your tongue, he says, but nearly anything tastes better than the ground nutmeg he ate the week before. Nutmeg? It turns out Shane is a veritable reference journal of household psychoactives. “Mulberry,” he says, “will fuck you up.”

Most of his information comes online, from sites such as and They’re informative, orderly sites recounting trip reports on everything from heroin to morning glory seeds. The latter contain LSA, about 10 percent as strong as LSD, and are available at any Kmart during growing season. “Just be careful to get the kind without the pesticides or poisons,” he adds. “The seed companies … they know,” he says, and shakes his head so surely that I start to shake mine, too.

The Web sites are so informative, the DEA reads them frequently to stay on top of new trends and, in its case to have 2C-T-7 scheduled, the agency even quoted, from them.

Certainly the information on the sites can be dangerous, and if that’s true, then the Internet is a book of matches soaked in kerosene. But the fire that burns is also a light in the dark for novice recreational users.

“I’d be long dead without Erowid,” admits Shane, stone-faced.

few months later and he’s collected another group of glee-seekers for a sampling of an extract of a plant called Salvia divinorum, a Mazatec ceremonial plant that, as of press time, was still legal but probably soon won’t be. It’s the next target. A bill introduced in the 107th Congress by Rep. Joe Baca that sought to make the plant and its active principle Salvinorin-A the next outlawed drug under federal law was saved, just barely, by adjournment. In the present 108th, it probably doesn’t stand a chance. It’s not as powerful or altering as 2C-T-7. Nowhere near, in fact. It does produce a hazy rainbow effect on everything visually and a stillness in the mind. Ten years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find a group of natives sitting around tripping on Salvinorin-A. But here we are. People like Douglas Coupland have been babbling about this, the end of history, for some time. Today we’re sitting here living it, pulling drugs out of extinction from the past and synthesizing them out of non-existence from the future.

Rising from the roomful of people sitting silently with their experiences, Harry gets up and starts reading aloud a poem by Robinson Jeffers.

“They are warming up the old horrors; and all that they say is echoes of echoes.”

“Jesus Christ, shut up already,” somebody says.

I zone out.

New myths are created every day. Banning substances or banning books, all I see is a blur. Corporate drug cartels, depression, enervation. There is a certain risk people are always going to be willing to run. Everything is the next big thing, readily replaced by the next big thing, which is bigger and ostensibly more “thing” than the last. The same old arguments and malaise always follow. We are complex chains of chemicals searching for reactions. Whether it’s a middle-aged woman in 1903 guzzling “Doctor Smitty’s Feel-Fine Tonic, Good For What Ails You,” a Pontiac salesman gobbling Dexedrine in the 1950s, or some bored teen in 2008 snorting a tube of Preparation H and banging himself on the head with a piece of plywood, somehow, somewhere, somebody will find a way. What are we so afraid of?

Feeling somewhat resolved, I puke into Harry’s trashcan, get up, and go get a sandwich.