Eye drops as heroin substitute, anyone? In Berlin, pharmaceuticals are increasingly abused by addicts and recreational users alike. We spoke to a helpless pharmacist and an industrious “legal” dealer.
I’d say by now there are more people on painkillers than on actual drugs,” says Martin (name changed). Working as a pharmacist in one of the Apotheken near the junkie hotspot Kottbusser Tor, he’s served his share of addicts. “Sometimes it’s obvious that the customer is a user, and even that the prescription has been faked. People are getting better and better at copying official papers, adding other medications and so on. But even if it’s obvious, I want no trouble. Who knows who’d wait for me on the corner after closing hours…”
High off the system
According to him, while fun-seeking tourists would rather go for the usual speed, cocaine or MDMA on offer at every corner near the big Berlin clubs, locals, university students and junkies are increasingly turning to prescription drugs. “It’s so easy to trick the German system,” Martin continues. “Big hospitals like Charité and Vivantes are understaffed during peak hours, and you can’t blame exhausted, tense doctors and nurses to get the ‘easy cases’ over with as soon as possible. So if someone walks in claiming terrible back pain, for example, they often won’t do a deep examination – just an X-ray, and then the pills. Cough medicine that contains codeine is easily prescribed to someone who claims they can’t sleep at night from their cold. And there you go.”
To avoid suspicion and get multiple prescriptions, pharmaceutical abusers can “doctor-hop” – since GPs can’t see what a patient has been prescribed elsewhere, it’s fairly easy to trick the practice. If they pay for the appointment out-of-pocket, the pharmacy won’t ask for their insurance card and the whole process remains fully anonymous.
The most commonly abused drugs fall into three categories: opioids (painkillers), depressants (sedatives,anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills) and stimulants (ADHD or narcolepsy medications). The first two are easy to get prescribed by a doctor, says Martin. The latter, being amphetamine derivatives, are a bit trickier, but becoming less so given the popularity of ADHD– “one of the biggest pharmaceutical scams of our time,” scoffs Martin, who sees many a university student or nightshift worker come into his shop for an extra hit of concentration.
We pharmacists stood speechless when the first waves of Pilocarpine prescriptions started coming in. We had no clue that they ave a heroin-like effect when injected into the veins.
Some anti-epileptic medications can also send users’ brains on a very intense trip, he says. And there’s even a type of eye drop that has a short, heroin-like effect when injected into the veins. “We pharmacists stood there speechless when the first waves of pilocarpine prescriptions started coming in. A dozen or so at a time. We had no clue. Then someone figured out that the drops, which contract the pupils and are necessary for glaucoma patients, can be used in a very different way.”
Concludes Martin, “The problem is that people don’t believe prescribed meds are as addictive as the drugs you buy on the streets. Because they’re legal, tested by doctors, etc., they think they’re safer. But they’re not!”
Dealings meds for a living
Martin is a reluctant dealer, but Magnus (name changed), a twentysomething Berliner and pharmaceutical school dropout, has embraced prescription drugs’ potential. “My parents stopped supporting me, and I needed the money,” he starts.“I knew that people are always looking for prescription drugs, especially the ones that are trickier to get – like the heroin substitutes.”
Most of my customers are students. I know what to give them so they´ll pull through the weekend with a good high, but still be able to function on Monday.
Magnus claims he makes up to €2000 a month on his business. Thanks to his studies, he knows the right people to ask for the papers – many underpaid nurses and even some GPs can be tempted by the easy money, he says – and how to fake prescriptions if he can’t get them. “Basic Photoshop skills are enough.” Scripts go for €20, but he also sells the pills. “Most of my customers are students who like to party on drugs, but don’t actually fancy party drugs. I know what to give them so they’ll pull through the weekend with a good high, but be able to function on Monday.” And there are always the heroin addicts looking for a cheaper fix. “Medications like Vicodin and Oxycontin are also poppy opiates, just like heroin. It’s so ridiculous how heroin is illegal in most countries, but Vicodin is fully covered by your health insurance!”
The 25-year-old is not the only one involved in this business. According to the latest police report there were over 3400 reported cases against Germany’s medicinal laws in 2015. This includes prescription faking, faked medication, doping and selling legal drugs in illegal circles – Magnus could face up to three years in jail if he got caught for the latter.
Besides the legal risks, the business doesn’t go without collateral damage: Magnus himself is a user. Walking along with him to one of his anonymous addiction support group meet-ups, he seems calm and casual, as if we were just heading to the train. Then he pauses for a few seconds on the stairs of Kottbusser Tor leading to U8, right next to a guy walking up the same stairway. That’s a spot that the cameras don’t cover. Magnus gives him a piece of paper and two pills – no packaging, just out of his pocket. The young, hipster-looking type with the blue Carhart hat gives him a €50 and off they go, as if nothing had ever happened.