A Vitamin Store is Denver's best source of legal 
    ephedrine -- until it runs out.
A Vitamin Store is Denver's best source of legal ephedrine -- until it runs out.
Anthony Camera

Confessions of an Ephedrine Eater

Twenty minutes ago, I popped a pair of tiny white pills, each containing 25 milligrams of pure ephedrine. And right about now, I'm channeling the Latter-day Saints of the Wild West. I'm kicking back frontier-style with a steaming cup of Brigham Tea, and I'm thinking to myself: Fuck coffee. This fight-or-flight shit rocks.

You see, the Mormon pioneers were total speed freaks. Yeah, it's true. When they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, the Goshute Indians introduced them to a cure-all potion, long favored by medicine men and brewed from the stems and flowers of a desert shrub. The Mormons liked it so much they named it after Brigham Young. The tonic's active ingredient was the same as in the Asian herb ma-huang: ephedrine. Natural crank.

If you've taken an over-the-counter cold medicine, you've probably taken ephedrine. You know how it says on the box "Won't make you drowsy?" Guess why. But to really do ephedrine, to tweak on it, you have to ingest a more, shall we say, committed dose -- at least 25 milligrams.

Maybe you don't want to go there. I understand. Ephedrine's literally not for the faint of heart. But since I'm looking down the barrel of a long night, here's what 50 milligrams feels like.

The rush came on with a tingling chill, like the caress of a breeze on sweat-beaded skin. That was the drug penetrating my blood-brain barrier, tricking my adrenal gland. Bio-chemically, I'm girded for battle or the hunt. Mentally, I know I'm safe and warm, with a stocked pantry. The sensation is one of euphoria and anxiety intertwined, as if I'm perpetually walking into a surprise party.

This part's fun while it lasts, but I know from experience I've only an hour, maybe ninety minutes, before the synthetic wet kiss cremates in the flames of undiluted nervous energy.

Ephedrine's not a feel-good drug. Its essence is purely utilitarian. I've found that when I do it, I'd better have a focused, worthy and, most important, pre-planned goal in mind. Otherwise I bounce off the walls at four in the morning, alternately reorganizing my CD collection and peering through the window blinds to see if the Men in Black are still out there.

I did my taxes on ephedrine last week, and it was fantastic: all those intricacies of the Internal Revenue Service code; all the calculations and re-calculations; all those delightfully precise forms to fill out with perfect block letters and numbers. Driving all night on ephedrine is less tedium than Homeric odyssey; beware the siren's song of truck-stop pinball.

Working out on ephedrine, I'm bionic. I can run like Lola. I can lift more weight, make more shots, climb more floors, and do it all faster and with less perceived effort. Performance-enhancing drug? Hell yes, it is, but scary. Hard exercise on ephedrine inspires my heart to abandon four-four time for acid-jazz beats, which sound a lot better on a Miles Davis album than reverberating in my chest cavity. I've listened through a stethoscope; it's not cool.

Ironically, it was a doctor who introduced me to high-dosing ephedrine. It was five years ago, and I had the flu, bad. I also had deadlines. So I go to see my primary-care physician and tell him I just need something to get me through the next 48 hours, and then I can crash. Homeboy hooked me up with ten 25-milligram pills. No prescription, no charge. They were from his personal stash. "These got me through medical school," he said. "Take two and you'll feel a lot better."

Physicians in China have been prescribing ma-huang for all sorts of sickness for at least 2,000 years, so my doc wasn't encouraging me to jack up on speed or anything. Oh, no, not at all. He was merely practicing the ancient and revered art of herbalism. At least he asked first if I have any heart problems or high blood pressure. I don't. Which is good for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that high-dosing ephedrine is likely to kill you if you have heart problems or high blood pressure. If you don't, it still might kill you, but only if you do a lot.

I do a lot. And I'm not alone. I see you out there. I know you by your black-pooled pupils and by the way your fingers tremor oh, so slightly, like mine are right now. I see you in the gym; I see you in the dance clubs; I see you in the mall; I see you in Wild Oats buying organic produce you won't eat because you're hardly ever hungry. I see you in the health-food stores. You're perusing the colorful bottles of dietary supplements and weight-loss aids and workout fuels with their long lists of wholesome-sounding ingredients designed to camouflage the high doses of ephedrine they contain so that Cherry Creek socialites who vote Republican can better lie to themselves. "Oh, no, I'm not doing drugs. I'm taking a dietary supplement." Yeah, yeah, Jenny Crank. Why don't you send your nanny out for another bottle of maximum-strength Oxycut?

Or, better yet, why don't you just cut the crap and send her to A Vitamin Store. Not any vitamin store -- A Vitamin Store. It's right next to the gay bondage shop on Broadway, between First and Second avenues. A Vitamin Store is Denver's only legal retailer of pharmaceutical ephedrine. Larry, the store's owner -- my dealer -- has been in business since 1993. He sells wind chimes and silver jewelry and herbal ecstasy and "Poland Has Gun Control" bumper stickers and body-building products of the banned-by-baseball variety, but mostly he sells pure ephedrine -- up to 900 pills per customer per month, the maximum allowed by federal law.

With his weathered cowboy features, long hair and graying mustache, Larry resembles Western actor Sam Elliot. Most days, he wears a baseball cap bearing an image of the U.S. flag embroidered with the words "America United" with a gold fish hook stuck in its brim.

Larry loves his country but loathes his government's ongoing crackdown on ephedrine, which has accompanied a series of highly publicized ephedrine overdose deaths by Midwestern high school cheerleaders and professional athletes. Last month, under pressure from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the state of Iowa shut down Council Bluffs-based T&M Distributing, the largest legal wholesaler of pharmaceutical ephedrine in the country. Larry's supplier.

Now he's down to his last three cases of the good stuff. There are 144 bottles in a case, 100 pills per bottle, and Larry estimates he'll be dry in three to four weeks. Until then, his newspaper advertisements proclaim he's having a "BLOWOUT SALE!!"

The blowout price for Larry's ephedrine is 37 bucks per bottle, plus tax. Larry guesses that most months, he sells one case for a gross of more than $5,300 on ephedrine alone. "I'll sell two cases in April, and probably my last case during the first week or two in May," he says. "The word's out, and everyone's stocking up."

To buy ephedrine from Larry, you have to give him two pieces of I.D., which he meticulously copies on a machine in the back and then has you sign to authenticate. Larry's licensed to sell pure ephedrine by the DEA, whose agents pay him surprise visits to make sure he's not selling to anyone younger than eighteen or exceeding the maximum sale limits.

"I've spent the last three days on the computer trying to find a new distributor," Larry says. "The government's driving us all out of business. And this whole anti-ephedrine campaign is based on misinformation. CNN ran a big scare story not too long ago, and they have this pathetic guy on there who fried his brain on ephedrine. They just sorta slip it in there toward the end that this guy took fifty pills all at once. He didn't follow the label, man."

Larry's also stressing over Colorado House Bill 1137, introduced last month by Loveland Republican Tim Fritz. The proposed law -- which wouldn't be enforceable until next July -- would make it a felony for a retailer to knowingly sell any otherwise legal substance, like, say, cold medicine, that is then used to make crystal methamphetamine. The law is designed primarily to bust convenience-store owners who swear they have no idea why toothless Uncle Fester is buying five cases of Sudafed at a time.

But only bathtub meth cooks use cold tablets. The ones who actually know what they're doing -- who, like, understand chemistry and shit -- prefer pure ephedrine, the kind Larry sells.

"That law says I'm a felon if I 'know or should have known' someone was going to turn around and do something illegal with the ephedrine I sell them," says Larry. "How the hell are you going to figure out what I should have known? It's just more craziness. I mean, I'm in business to make money, but I do it legally. I'm not going to sell you two cases out the back; I don't care if you offer me 100 bucks a bottle. And believe me, I've had such offers."

But Larry admits there's no way to prevent meth cooks from sending in proxy buyers to score nine bottles at a time. "Right now, I know some of my regulars are having their wives or husbands come in and buy the maximum before I'm out," he says.

Now, I want to be clear here. I'm not saying that any of A Vitamin Store's customers have ever or will ever purchase ephedrine with the intent of doing anything other than treating their asthma, because if I did, Westword's libel lawyer would bitch-slap me. And there's nothing worse than being bitch-slapped by a lawyer.

Except maybe coming down off speed.

It's presently four in the morning, and I'm not feeling so good. I'm dry-mouthed, jittery, and I have to piss every five minutes. Plus the cops just blew away some kid who pointed a crossbow with a laser sight at them, practically outside my front door. I'm really wishing my shepherd would stop pacing, because the clicky-clack, clicky-clack of her toenails on the hardwood floors is driving me mad, and I've searched my apartment five times and still can't find the goddamn clippers. That, combined with the noise from the shooting scene outside, has set my skin crawling. I can't sleep. I'm spun. I'm shutting down now.

On my own, here we go.


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