From the Archives: Drugstore Cowboys (1977)

Pharmaceutical looters terrorize Dixie: a true confession
Drugstore
Courtesy of High Times

By George Butler

There are a lot of thieves in the South. I’ve seen police crime bulletins that list North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina as the top three states in crime rate. They’re also the hottest states for drugstore robberies, although Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee are also good pickins. In fact, according to a new state law, South Carolina pharmacies can no longer get insurance unless they are properly alarmed. Pharmacies are being hit all over the country, but the South is definitely the center of the action—maybe because Southerners tend to know more about pharmaceuticals. And towns tend to be smaller down here, with less sophisticated alarm systems and fewer police.

I’m 20 now, and I’ve been hitting stores for five years. But my first job was a doctor’s office. A friend had told me how to get in and out of the place. He had described it as a “truckload,” literally “a million dollars’ worth.” Well, a few days later, me and my main boy, J.C., were tripping on some acid and really freaking out. We couldn’t find a barb anywhere to come down with. It just so happened that at that moment we were driving by this office. I told J.C. we could get some downs there, and he was ready.

We parked his truck a mile away in the woods and took along two burlap sacks, some masking tape, socks for gloves and a sawed-off shotgun. I had to cut through five locked doors with my trusty Buck pocket knife. We ended up with four gallons of paregoric, 40 grams of sodium pentathol and a bunch of bullshit. Since this was our first heist, we really didn’t know what to look for. We just took as much as we could carry of anything that looked dopey.

On our way out we passed a drink machine blinking on and off in the front office. J.C. thought it was the cops and emptied both barrels into it. We hauled ass and headed for Macon, only to find out that we had barely $200 or $300 in dope. A month or two later we hit a real store and had a good lick at that.

There are many ways to get certain kinds of pills short of robbery. The Class A drugs—narcotics—are the most popular down here. For these, wisdom teeth and abscesses are good to use on your dentist. I’ve always used the kidney-stone trip with doctors, putting some blood in the urine sample and using my best rap. These methods yield morphine, Dilaudid, Demerol, Pantopon and Percodan.

Forging prescriptions is another method. I haven’t done this very often, but I know the routine. Some friends and I once broke into a doctor’s office, found the script pads and forged them for Dilaudid. Then we left two people there —a guy to play doctor and a woman to be his receptionist and answer the phone. We cashed the scripts all over town. If a pharmacist became a little suspicious, he just called the office and we were covered. Since we were in a fairly large city, we ended up with over a thousand pills.

Who does stores? I’ve done them with black dudes and New York Puerto Ricans, but most of the guys are middle-class white boys. Most are dope fiends out to get high, but others are only in it for the money and don’t even get off themselves. Some go for the barbs and speed, but junkies have been doing it for years. Charlie Moore, an 80-year-old patient in the Veteran’s Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, told me he started stealing dope when morphine went to $40 an ounce. He hit his last store when he was 76 and broke his foot on the way out. Old Charlie is a living legend, a story by himself. The state narcotics commissioner, Mr. Woods, told me Charlie was the best in the business.

It’s hard to tell in advance what a store is worth; they vary according to the prescriptions they fill most. My share in the job I’m now doing time for was 300 No. 4 Dilaudid, 275 Percodan, 400 Quaaludes and Sopors (300 mg), 175 Optimil and Parest (400 mg), 500 Nembutal (100 mg), 200 Seconal (100 mg), 200 3-grain Tuinal, 200 3-grain Amytal, 300 Desoxyn and assorted other kinds of speed, 175 Preludin (25 and 75 mg), 200 Biphetamine (Black Beauties) and 250 Amphaplex (10 and 20 mg). Amphaplex, put out by Palmedico in Columbia, South Carolina, is hands down the most famous speed in the South. The old ones would break down by cold-shaking, but buffers are added to the new ones to cut down their abuse potential, so they have to be cooked and strained. An average store will net about 10 to 15 grand if sold in quantity, but I’ve heard of people making as much as $60,000 on a single hit.

I usually fronted my speed and barbs to my tight boys down at the university. They sold singles—speed to study and downs to party. I sold the most expensive hard drugs myself. I didn’t see much of the good stuff, though, because me and my old lady can really get down. We used to get to where we were shootin’ three or four No. 4 Dilaudid at a time. She was brought up on Thai scag, though, and likes heroin better. I like the head of heroin, too, but the rush no way to describe it—it gives me a hard that just won’t quit. Maybe that’s the reason she’s still around.

My tight man, Fat Boy Turner, who’s now doing 25 for armed robbery, likes Desoxyn best. This speed’s good enough to make a 17-year-old preacher’s son get out his gun and go hunting. Of course, when it comes to downs, Quaalude is the national favorite. It’s a 714 generation; everybody’s after the big Lude. But all bullshit aside, the junkies are the real cowboys. They do it for the real physical need. For the rest of us, there’s the drugstore addiction itself—the action, not the dope. Like my ol’ roadie, Jerry Hogg, told me, “Just imagine yourself broke and dope sick, trying to keep it off your mind. Then suddenly there it is, a sure-fire lick. You see it, you feel it, and then the hard part: you do it.” The last and best part is crawling into your car and getting away with a $30,000 score. Everything’s cool until that “cowboy fever” strikes and you’re ready to do it again. That’s why we’re all sittin’ here in prison. You can’t quit. It’s like bustin’ one nut; you gotta go back for the other.

After doing a store, I used to like to go home to Covena, Georgia. I liked to turn on all my home boys with barb parties. Us Ohoopee River swamp boys used to really get down. I’ve seen some of them down nine three-grain Tuinals with a quart of white liquor. They’d be a-fightin’ and araisin’ sho-nuff hell, while the women’d be looser’n a lighter stump in a sand ridge.

Then we’d come to the hardest part: selling the stuff. In this police state you can never tell who’ll turn you in. I’ve never been caught while on the scene or leaving it. All my busts were the result of faulty rap partners. My tight boy Jerry, a Geechie from Charleston, South Carolina, sells his drugs in places like Joe’s Tackle Shop and to the prostitutes on Reynolds Avenue. He never rushes things, just makes himself available. His system must work, ’cause he’s been raiding stores for five years and never been convicted for it.

Selling in quantity is faster and safer but less profitable. One of our biggest takes happened like this: In August of ’74. me and my partner were on our way to the August Jam in Charlotte, North Carolina, when we spotted a good store. We went inside and J.C. helped me hide up in the bathroom ceiling before he split. After hours I slipped down, turned off the alarms, found the narcotics box and left. We went on to the concert and sold almost the whole store in singles. People from all over the country were copping from us instead of buying the street dope.

One little tip: before a job it’s always a good idea to call the store and ask if they can fill a certain prescription. Dilaudid is a good one to ask for, because if they have this, they’re sure to have anything else you’ll want. There are four basic ways to do a store: armed robbery, hiding inside and breaking out, breaking and entering, or just kicking in the door—grabbing what you can and splitting fast. This last method is called “healing them,” and it’s my favorite, although I’ve done all four. Armed robbery is fun because it gives you that ol’ Jesse James feeling. Hiding inside is the slickest and easiest, and B & E takes the most skill. But healing them is the one that really takes heart. You’re inside the store with all the alarms going off and only seconds to find the nare box and haul ass. I’ve done that one a lot and they say I’ve got a lotta heart, but my old lady and kids have it now. She says I’ll never see the inside of another store—not after hours, anyway. But I’ll never forget the rush in the nuts and head I used to feel running down the street with two full burlap sacks.

By the time I get out of here, if a man wants a store he’ll have to Bogart it with a gun. Of course, every store can be hit. A man just has to put his mind to it. With different stores you use different methods. Healing them is not always possible, since some places have the dope in safes or scattered on the back shelves. In these cases it takes too long to get it all together. Usually, though, it’s all kept in a locked box or drawer. Finding this is an instinct with me; it’s never taken me more than two minutes, even in a strange store.

Once in a South Carolina small town, two of my most solid partners and I planned to take a store. Tony, a Puerto Rican, and Jesse, a good Southern boy, had both made time before. Tony got his for armed robbery in Jersey, and Jesse, for stealing the chief of detectives’ exhibition pot from his office in Jesse’s hometown. Tony needed the money, Jesse needed the dope and I needed the rush.

I already had the place scoped out. The only hang-up was the police station right across the street. We parked in a factory parking lot a few blocks away. A strange car in a small town will get you nabbed faster than anything. Tony and Jesse pried open the back door while I hawked from beside the store. I was about to piss in my pants: the cops were sitting outside drinking coffee at 2:00 A.M.

When they finally got the door open, we ran inside straight for the prescription counter. Next thing I knew we were all running out again. Seems they had an intercom system connected directly to the police station. We got outside and saw everything was still cool, so Jesse went back in and turned down the volume on the intercom. He said they’d be more likely to notice if it was turned off completely.

Jesse was a bang-up thief, but he had a habit of stretching the truth a bit. In fact, he lied a lot. He’d been telling us he could crack a safe with a stethoscope. Well, on that night Tony’s wife, a nurse, just happened to have a stethoscope. Tony handed it to him, but he wriggled out of it by saying he had to have the electric type. I told him he was full of shit, and back in we went. I got the narcotics box while Tony gathered the paregoric and syringes on the shelves. I told Jesse to try the safe, although I knew he couldn’t do it. I’m finished loading my sacks when I look over and see Jesse acting like a real safe-cracker, blowing on his knuckles and everything, when suddenly the door of the safe opens. Jesse fell over and fainted. Of course, he never admitted it, but it was just a stroke of luck. Anyway, who cared, with $2,600 plus all the dope?

Like most convicts, I’ve sometimes thought a book on my life of crime would be a seller. It probably wouldn’t, but this opportunity to say a few things has me walkin’ in tall cotton.

I’ve lived a good, hard, fast life these last six years. Now I have to pay back four years in return. And, as they say here, “Payback is a bitch.” Time has never bothered me before: I’ve been in countless jails, reformatories, chain-gang camps and penitentiaries. These four wouldn’t really bother me except that I’ve gone and fallen in love, something that’s strange and new to me. It’s something I’ve always managed to avoid or overcome, but now it’s got me by the balls and this time is really kicking my ass. I’ve grown tired of all this bullshit, and if my old lady sticks with me, I’m through with it. They give big time for drugstores these days, and Southern pens are rough. I’ve shot more dope than many people have ever seen, gotten my share of ass and spent plenty of money. All I’ve got to show for now, though, are a few scars on my arms, some good memories, and a woman who loves me. But in four years, who knows?

High Times Magazine, February 1977

Read the full issue here.

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