On not taking cocaine in Colombia

Words by Joel Lewin, Art by Rhys James.

When I said I was going to Colombia some eyebrows were raised. 

“The world’s biggest cocaine producer?”

“Don’t sample the local treats, haha.”

I was aware of the reputation. How could I not be? But after five years in recovery it no longer felt like a concern.

First stop Bogota. A vibrant mishmash of red-tiled colonial buildings with painted balcony balustrades. Narrow streets swoop up green mountains decapitated by clouds. A few people smoking crack in the street. That always grabs my attention.

Fortunately I was on a bike tour so my attention had no chance to linger before being redirected to the street murals exploding across every available façade. Then, curious red brick neighbourhoods that could have been transplanted from Oxford. They sprouted in rebellion against Spanish influence, after the 19th century wars for independence.

Do you like drugs?

Next up was Medellín, the former stronghold of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. Outside the airport I hopped in a random car, three times cheaper than a taxi because it wasn’t painted yellow. The driver looked stoned – but doesn’t everyone, in their own way? Carlos started telling me about Medellín. His first observation: “Hay muchas fiestas en Medellín”. He told me of a park with lots of parties and drugs and great opportunities to be robbed.

“Do you like drugs?” he asked. I used to, I said, but I haven’t touched any in five years. I worried this was too ambiguous, and then wondered whether this was strategic ambiguity, that sneaky part of me leaving the door ajar without overtly leading him on.

Carlos proceeded to outline the dynamics of the Medellín drug market. “In the street you can get a gram of bad coke for $1, but it’s better to get a gram of pure coke for $20 from a dealer. But you need to know a dealer,” he said, with a tone that suggested he could help me with that.

We rounded a corner and Medellín came into view, lights spilling down the hillsides and flooding the valley. “Welcome to Medellín,” he said, and turned up the reggaeton. I felt a thrill of excitement, my skin tingling. What new experiences awaited in that light-flooded valley?

His analysis moved onto a less renowned area of the Medellín drug scene.

“Do you know oxycodone?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, surprised. “Is there a lot of that here?”

“There’s more heroin. Lots of heroin. But oxycodone too,” he said.

He paused for a moment then reached into the glove compartment and handed me a box of injectable oxycodone ampoules.

“That’ll cost you $80,” he said. “You can get syringes in the pharmacy.”

At this point my body became a travelling circus. My stomach launched into all sorts of acrobatics, somersaults, soaring trapeze stunts, fireworks going off down my spine, my breath hot and heavy like a fire breather, elephants stomping a foreboding death march across my brain, and my mind teetering on a tightrope above it all, its little arms outstretched, flailing to stay balanced and not tumble into the chaos below.

I handed them back like a hot potato. Didn’t say a word. Words that could have been said? “Not for me. I don’t touch that anymore.” But that circus made me mute.

Eventually, my urge to maintain polite conversation – the least consequential of all the urges and competing priorities clashing inside me – overrode everything.

“Do you like oxycodone?” I asked.

Just one more time

For the rest of the journey, my mind was in fully fledged fantasy mode, playing out glorious and improbable scenarios of a “successful” and contained, consequence-free half-day speedball spree. Just a few hours of fun, then leave it all behind and see the city, do what I came here for. The pharmaceutical protagonist of these fantasies, inches from my knees, was easy to cast.

Then the rational voice kicked in: half a day? Yeah right. You’ll spend the next week holed up in a hotel room, emerging a nervous wreck with arms like a colander.

But… things are different now; after five years, you know enough about this beast to keep it in check. A one off would be fine. Just one more time. Anyway, you wouldn’t be doing it because you needed to, but because you chose to. You can take it or leave it, which means you can definitely take it then leave it.

But… if the obsessive force of memories from five years ago is still so strong, imagine how potent it’ll be once you refresh them. Even if it is one and done, you’ll be hounded by cravings for weeks…

But… this is a unique opportunity – high quality, cheap drugs, and you’re away from friends, family, girlfriend – nobody will know and you might never get this opportunity again…

But… I’ll know. In two weeks it’s your five year anniversary – if you do this, that will be a miserable day. If you don’t, you can celebrate with a clear conscience and nothing to hide.

Finally I hauled myself out of that debate and marvelled at how two voices, so distinct and persuasive, can co-exist in the same mind. We arrived at the hostel and the fantasies remained, for now, unconsummated. I tipped him well, telling myself he’d given me a fair price and warm vibes. But the deviant part of my mind saw it as an investment.

“Call me,” he said as I headed off.

Now the sensible thing would have been to delete his number and forget all about it. And that idea certainly occurred to me. But there’s also this part of me that is not so sensible, a part that had reared its head with surprising force even after all these years. And that part insisted on keeping the number, “just in case.” Just in case I need a taxi number, in a city full of taxis, with taxis on tap in two minutes on apps, and taxi numbers plastered on every restaurant? Yes, just in case.

Upstairs in my room, two very wise courses of action occurred to me: delete his number, call someone. Neither were followed. Instead I chose a moderately wise course of action that kept the fantasies at bay until my eyes closed for the night – distract the shit out of myself.

The next day I locked myself into an all-day city tour, to get an overview of Medellín, and to curtail any space for those fantasies to become reality.

When bad memories are medicine

Arriving at Botero Plaza, my eyes shimmied across the curving chessboard facade of the Palacio Cultural. Plump Botero statues bulged from plinths. But despite this visual feast, my attention was quickly consumed by people smoking crack around the perimeter.

One guy’s trousers were defying gravity, somehow suspended at the thigh. He theatrically brandished a colossal crack pipe, leaning back at 45 degrees, Matrix style. He went to light it, but performed yet another improbable feat; he paused, and brandished the pipe some more like a traffic conductor, before finally taking a hit.

Beside him stood a woman, tranquil, calmly lighting her pipe over and over, without changing her posture or expression. My mind slipped into theirs and I wondered what they were feeling. My stomach lurched. Thankfully I’d made friends with an Argentine who kept my attention on the building and the Boteros, rather than the fascinating scenes unfolding outside.

Back on the bus I summoned the most vivid, euphoric snippets of speedball memories, like a butcher selecting the finest cuts of meat, savouring them until that circus started up again. Then I realised what was happening and how dangerous that was, and conjured the most miserable moments of those days, like a horror film connoisseur on a YouTube binge, seeing my old self sick and lonely, in a wonderful city surrounded by friends, yet unable to experience anything except cravings and misery.

That shut the circus down. Funny that the best thing I could do for myself was tap into my worst memories. Imagining things induces similar neurological and physiological responses to actually experiencing them, which is why imaginal exposure can be such a valuable intervention for phobias, and safe-place imagery so helpful for PTSD. We can wreak havoc with our imagination, but we can also harness it to cultivate more helpful states. Sitting on that bus, I did both, over and over. A dizzying cycle of self-sabotage and self-preservation.

It was time to call my sponsor.

He was reassuringly unconcerned. “You got triggered,” he said. “It would be weird if your thoughts didn’t go haywire.”

“But remember, thoughts are just thoughts. They come from nowhere, and if you let them, they disappear back where they came from; fucking nowhere.”

Research suggests a new thought arises every 4.8s, with participants averaging 375 thoughts in a 30-minute session. That’s a lot of thoughts. What the hell should we do with them? Metacognitive perspectives suggest that our relationship with our thoughts matters more than their contents. The way we think about our thoughts determines the impact they have. Problematic metacognitive patterns in addiction include believing that you must control your thoughts and that thoughts are dangerous, which are significant predictors of relapse.

I recalled my work with OCD, and the thought-action-fusion fallacy, which leads people to believe that thinking about something makes it more likely to occur. But you can think really hard about sitting down, whilst remaining standing. I recalled times when clients have been delighted by the liberating realisation that thoughts are just thoughts, they don’t need to act on them, and they don’t reflect who they are as a person. Having these thoughts after five years of recovery did not mean I was destined to enact them, or that something was going fundamentally wrong. The thoughts meant nothing at all, as long as I let them.

Intensity of experience

The campaign waged by that craving voice boils down to a single message: it feels so good. Yes, it feels good, I countered time and again, but it’s a feeling I’ve felt a thousand times before. There is nothing new there.

But… nothing feels so good.

And sadly, in a way that is true. Nothing can feel as good as that intense flash of euphoria. But it’s such a bright flash that integral to it is the darkness that follows. One of the challenges of recovery is to accept slow burning pleasures instead. They don’t burn so brutally bright, but they leave you warm in their wake, instead of in total darkness craving more light. When you forgo the sublime intensity of narcotics, you need to find excitement elsewhere. And by God, Colombia was the right place to do that.

Communa 13

When Medellin was Pablo Escobar’s HQ in the 80s and 90s, it was the most dangerous city on the planet. Communa 13, with its brick buildings stacked precariously on a steep hillside, was one of the most violent parts. Even after Escobar’s death in 1993, the violence raged on as his Medellin cartel fragmented. In 2002, police raided Communa 13, killing nine people and wounding scores more. But since then, local projects and community centres have brought it back to life. The installation of nearly 400m of escalators has plugged it into the city.

Buildings bloom with murals. Street dancers and rappers get crowds bouncing. The anthill alleys are cramped but not oppressive. It feels more vivid for the compression, human friction sparking festivity. No room for fantasies of solitary debauchery when you’re lost in that carnival frenzy.

Communa 13’s rejuvenation reminded me how vibrant life can be without drugs. But it also got me pondering my own complicity with the violence they were recovering from. Are western drug users responsible in part for the trail of destruction from Colombian coca fields to western mirrors and crack pipes? Conveniently for my conscience, Colombia’s new president, former rebel Gustavo Petro, has attributed the problem not to the drugs themselves, but to the miserable alienation of capitalist society, and a war on drugs that cultivates a context in which violence flourishes.

Speaking to the UN in September 2022 shortly after his election victory, Petro said:

The sickness of society will not be cured by spilling glyphosate in the jungle. The jungle is not responsible. Society educated towards endless consumption, stupid confusion between consumption and happiness is what makes it possible for the pockets of the rich to be filled. Those responsible for drug addiction are not the forest. It is the lack of rationality of world power.

Decreasing drug consumption does not need wars. It needs for all of us to build a better society with more solidarity, with more affection, where the intensity of life will save people from addiction.

Botero, Bishops and Buttocks

Art by Rhys James @artbyrhysjames

When waiving the temptation of drugs feels like a lack, there’s more impetus to seek the intensity of mind-altering experiences via other avenues.

Fernando Botero didn’t do much for me before. But encountering the Medellin-born artist’s paintings in the flesh, in their full bulbous voluminosity, rather than on a tiny screen, is like showering without a raincoat. I walked into the Botero Museum and started laughing like a delighted child.

One painting shows a plump little conical nubbin of a Catholic bishop walking through a forest in a flamboyant pink frock, with a pink umbrella (no rain) and his pink cape trailing far behind. He is ludicrously, determinedly extravagant and inelegant against the effortless elegance of the towering trees behind. He is ridiculous. But there’s also this sense of courage and elegance to his inelegance, a curious compassionate humour that pervades many of Botero’s paintings.

It’s as if Botero is mocking what his bulging subjects are trying to achieve, but loving them for trying. In a way that combination of levity and love is a guide to our relationship with ourselves. Laugh at the sincerity of our weird little pursuits, but love ourselves for the persistence of our pursuit, even in the face of this absurdity.

Another painting, El Estudio, shows a colossal nude model, a vast expanse of buttocks dominating the foreground at eye level. The miniscule head of the painter peers at her from behind the canvas. His gaze is solemn and diligent, but the scaling mismatch renders his task and his solemnity absurd. How could he have enough paint?

In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton traces the rise of the word ‘sublime’ to describe vast landscapes besides which “man seems merely dust postponed: the sublime as an encounter – pleasurable; intoxicated, even – with human weakness in the face of the strength, age and size of the universe.”

Standing in front of those inflated buttocks, I experienced an awe-inspiring sense of deflation like de Botton in the Sinai Mountains. I felt small and insignificant, like the pea-headed painter, and that downsizing left me floating free like a peanut shell dropped from a cliff top. Those buttocks were shining long before I could walk or talk, and they’ll shine on long after I’ve returned to dust. I was drunk without drinking, and that is a good place to be in recovery.

Other Worlds

Art by Rhys James @artbyrhysjames

I left Medellin without sampling Carlos’ delicacies. Forgoing those pleasures was a pleasure in itself. After an easy ride in recovery of late, the temptation to say yes reminded me of the thrill of saying no.

And saying no to Carlos meant I made it to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. Bobbing on a boat out at sea, I rolled backwards into another world. Floated down 18 metres, shards of sunlight hinting at the world I’d just left but no longer cared about. Instantly unplugged are the parts of your mind that process the past and the future and self and others. You are nobody. Just a floating awareness of coral brains covered in winding labyrinths and wrinkled purple pancake stacks. Architecturally adventurous alien cities. Flailing claws hint at crustaceans. A moray eel protrudes like a leathery hand puppet. Accusatory eyes. Accusing who? Not me. There is no me. Social anxiety does not exist here.

Back on the surface the heavens had opened. I squeezed onto a bus into town. Tessellated torsos, splashing through flooded roads, water pouring down windows in solid streams, rambunctious Caribbean music bouncing the driver like the potholes bounced his bus, a wad of notes clutched in the hand holding the steering wheel, an old man’s eyes wide at timelapse videos of mushrooms growing. He looked up and smiled at me watching him watching. I felt alive. This is how I want to use this soggy bundle of neurons to pleasure myself, I thought. Keep mainlining reality.


  1. Enjoyed reading about your journey in the physical and mind. Hope you are well and things carry on positively 🙂


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