Baja Tijuana has long attracted people seeking medicine and medical procedures unavailable or unaffordable in their home countries. They've been joined recently by people seeking the means to kill themselves. And some of them are coming from 8000 miles away. It’s being called suicide tourism, and Tijuana is one of its hottest destinations, so hot that one of the men who put Tijuana on the suicide tourism map now says he’s directing people to Mexican border towns to the east.
Dr. Philip Nitschke could be described as the Jack Kevorkian of Australia. He’s been nicknamed Dr. Death in his country for his very public championing of what he terms “end-of-life choices.” He performed the first legal physician-assisted suicides in the world in 1996, when the Northern Territory, a province of Australia, legalized the practice. Within months of passing, the law was overturned, but Nitschke has remained active in the issue. He’s the president of a group called Exit International and the coauthor of a book called The Peaceful Pill Handbook that details ways in which people can kill themselves peacefully and painlessly. The book, which gained notoriety when it was banned in Australia and New Zealand, offers tips on traveling to Mexico to buy pentobarbital — also known as Nembutal.
“The history of the drug is interesting,” said Nitschke, reached by phone in Australia. “It used to have a bit of a role as a sleeping tablet. It was one of the barbiturate sleeping tablets, and it was implicated in Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland ending their lives by having an overdose of sleeping tablets. But it’s fallen away…it’s almost a non-prescribed drug for human use. But it’s still used in veterinary practice. That’s the one people are seeking out in Mexico.”
Asked why Mexico, Nitschke responds, “Convenience. It’s relatively easy for people to access the country from as far away as Australia. It’s not just a matter of distance but a matter of the ability to simply fly into America and cross the border. And the cost of the travel is relatively cheap. Those are the main considerations. There have been other places. But Mexico became the most well known, and partly because we included a chapter about it in my book. What we were trying to do is take away some of the difficulty and make it a much more straightforward process in terms of obtaining what it is people need. To do that, you’ve got to make it clear what it is people are trying to do so that they’re not just wandering in a foreign country making all sorts of mistakes. They need to know exactly what they’re trying to do and that the product they’re getting is what they want. So we were able to find out what all those processes are and write about them. That book was published a couple of years ago, and since, there’s been quite an increase in the number of people traveling into Mexico for this reason.”
Recently, at Star Pet veterinary pharmacy on the west side of Avenida Revolución just south of Second, the clerk on duty, when asked for pentobarbital, said in fluent English, “We’re all sold out. We’ll get more in about a month and a half.”
The clerk recommended another veterinary pharmacy “a block and a half down Second.” On the south side of Second, between Negrete and Ocampo, stands Granero Los Alazanes. The store is stuffed with handmade wooden doghouses, leashes, muzzles, shampoos, and pet food. Behind the counter, a couple in their mid-30s watch a soap opera playing on a wall-mounted television. Asked for pentobarbital by a customer, the woman looks a bit nervous and glances at the man to her left. He nods his head almost imperceptibly, and she grabs a bottle down from a high shelf behind her. It’s 100 milliliters of Pentovet NRV brand pentobarbital. “Forty-five dollars,” she says.
Dr. Luis Guerra operates a veterinary practice in Colonia Libertad, a neighborhood that clings to the hills between the river and the border about five miles east of downtown. “What are those veterinary pharmacies doing down there in a tourist area?” he asks rhetorically. “They’re not there for pets.”
Guerra says he’s heard about people coming to Mexico to obtain pentobarbital but says none have ever come to him asking for it. “I wouldn’t sell it to them if they did,” says Guerra, a gregarious man in his mid-50s with thick black hair and the gray-flecked brush mustache common to middle-aged Mexican men. Dressed in tan slacks, blue polo shirt, and a white apron, he stands behind the glass display case of what he calls his “pharmacy.” “I sell shampoos, soaps, flea medicines, things like that,” Guerra explains, “nothing that requires a prescription, and certainly no anesthetics such as pentobarbital.”
Guerra says he understands why someone who wanted to die would want to use pentobarbital, because of the peaceful nature of death caused by the barbiturate. “They would fall asleep and not wake up.”
In his veterinary practice, Guerra administers pentobarbital by injection in order to tranquilize and anesthetize animals before he performs surgery on them. “I give the proper dosage, and the dog goes to sleep. If I give any more, the breathing will stop.”
Though he knows the death would be peaceful, Guerra doesn’t think pentobarbital makes a good suicide drug because “I think it would take more than one person. In order to die peacefully, they have to inject first to sleep, and then the second, fatal dose, and somebody has to help at that point. Let’s say I wanted to do it by myself. As I inject myself, I start getting drowsy, and most likely, before I finish a fatal dosage, I’m asleep. If I tried quickly to inject enough to be fatal, there are two risks: the needle might pop out or you might get a huge concentration of the liquid in one spot, and that doesn’t bring about the desired effect.”
“That’s right,” says Nitschke, “so you don’t inject it. You drink it. It comes in 50- or 100-milliliter bottles, and in a 100-millileter bottle you get six grams. I’ve never seen anyone drink six grams of that and finish their whiskey, if they’re drinking whiskey afterwards.”