From Medellín To Manchester: Inside The Rise Of Tusi, Colombia's 'Pink Cocaine'
Europe's party scene is suddenly awash with a bright pink substance commonly known as tusi — but what is it? And where has it come from? David Hillier investigates
“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” It was the eponymous, doomed heroine of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet who bemoaned the bogus nature of image and title with these lines.
It’s an apt idiom when considering tusi, the newest powder to dust the noses of Europe’s partygoers. It’s commonly known as pink cocaine or pink Champagne. Others call it pink tusi, tucibi, 2C-B or even perhaps Tussy. The point is, it’s got a lot of names. Fittingly for a drug with so many monikers, no one batch is the same – barring the ubiquitous hot pink hue that is its calling card.
The focus of a June VICE documentary and profiled in a recent UN report, this florid substance has been the subject of multiple Spanish drugs busts – the latter in a Madrid manufacturing laboratory. It is also the concern of many Reddit threads, been tested in Greater Manchester and at England’s Lost Village festival. It was even (falsely) accused of causing a spate of Ibizan deaths. So how has tusi landed on the keys of drug users – and who’s actually taking it?
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Tusi has its origins in voracious Colombian appetites for 2C-B. The synthetic hallucinogen – often pegged as a cross between MDMA and LSD – was first synthesised by the research chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin in 1974. According to a report in Insight Crime, it became the narcotic weapon of choice for Medellín’s clubbing cognoscenti by the late-2000s, where enterprising vendors dyed the notoriously painful-to-snort 2C-B with pink food dye.
It flowed through the country’s nightlife, becoming a drug of the so-called elite, but unfortunately the pipelines for 2C-B to South America were often blocked. Dealers began making their own blend, with a hotpotch of substances designed to imitate the psychedelic stimulant experience – frequently a mix of caffeine, ketamine, MDMA or amphetamines and maybe tiny amounts of actual 2C-B.
According to the Colombian drug checking organisation Échele Cabeza, 95 per cent of drugs sold as 2C-B (also known as Nexus and culturally embedded enough to be enshrined in multiple reggaeton song titles) were fake by 2018. Worryingly, the cache of fillers included potentially far more harmful substances like the long-lasting amphetamine PMA, the cathinone MPDV, and even Sildenafil – better known by its brand name of Viagra.
So how did it cross the sea to Europe?
“In Spain, the real 2C-B is a very popular drug. People love it. They love the energy,” says Mireia Ventura of Spain’s Energy Control, which tests drug samples from all over Europe. Ventura’s organisation noticed tusi eight years ago. It was popular first with the Latinx population but stretched its legs after the pandemic. “The demand was higher than before COVID-19. After the pandemic it was a new trend [in Spain] and expanded to clubbers. It was a drug with the new colour that made it very attractive,” she tells me from their Barcelona office.
Mireia says this increased demand led to a relatively high price point –around €100 a gram, but that price has since dropped to between €60 and €80, in tandem with its popularity. “Nowadays, people are demanding less because they saw they could mix it themselves.”
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The latter makes sense when you consider the average composition is, according to Mireia, around 30 per cent of ketamine, 60 per cent of caffeine, and 10 percent of amphetamine or MDMA. “We are now seeing the amount of MDMA reduced as it’s more expensive and we are seeing sometimes eutylone or 3-MMC [both cathinones],” she says, “Maybe that’s when they can reduce the price.”
A nightclub employee working in Ibiza this summer told Mixmag. “Tusi was everywhere. It was just like any other drug. It depends on the circles you’re in but, in mine, it was a bit of coke and a bit of tusi.” The staffer – who asked to remain anonymous – said there was a two-tier pricing: around €140-150 or €80 a gram. They weren’t particularly impressed when they did the latter: “It had no head high. It’s got a nice flavour though – it goes up nice.”
Intercontinental drugs sampling from DrugsData has shown broadly similar findings as Energy Control regarding tusi’s composition, with the likes of cocaine, levamisole (the stimulating worming agent regularly cut with coke) and MDMA progenitor MDA all occasionally laced in the chemical cocktail. Rachel Clark, Education Manager from the American harm reduction organisation DrugSafe, also told Mixmag that they’ve seen it more in “party-adjacent environments and that there’s a lot of misinformation about it. Some folks think they have 2C-B on their hands and sell it as that, when it's actually tusi. Folks just aren't aware of the fact that pink powder sold as 2C-B originated as a "tusi" marketing scheme for a mixture of MDMA/caffeine/ketamine.”
Josh Torrance is a criminology tutor and drugs policy researcher at the University of Bristol. He says that “tusi is quite niche in the UK”, noting that government-funded drugs testing service Wedinos has only reported a handful of submissions. He says an ounce is going for £1,400 – which boils down to £50 per gram at bulk price – and is being sold on the street for £75.
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“That’s the equivalent to top shelf cocaine,” Torrance says. “There will be different batches going round with different contents but that’s some quite impressive profit margins if you think it [tusi in the UK] will be mostly ketamine and MDMA.”
He believes that tusi “probably won’t catch on in a major way”, given the average street price for a gram of ketamine or MDMA is around £30, with many dealers offering multi-buy discounts. “Quite a lot of UK drug users are fairly savvy,” he says. “I think those users are going to know they are paying over the odds for a random mixture of drugs that they aren’t choosing the ratio or effects of. If you like this combination, why would you not just buy them separately?”
Mixmag spoke to a London-based DJ who is a regular on the capital’s alternative scene. “I’ve seen tusi a lot at club and house parties, and used it a few times. One time in particular was strong and very trippy, but I really enjoyed it,” they say, noting that it had little effect on other occasions. They think that “dealers often offer it as a special but it is their leftover drugs with pink dye”, adding that that their friend – who isn’t a dealer – has started making their own and that was the only tusi they’d consider purchasing now.
This arbitrary composition makes it a tricky substance for harm reductionists. “Mixing drugs always makes those drugs' effects way less predictable,” says Guy Jones, senior chemist of The Loopand founder of Reagent Test UK. "The complication is that there is no single pink Tusi.”
As an example, he posits that a 50/50 mix of ketamine and caffeine could be a desirable drug for some people, not to mention self-limiting. “But you might also have someone that’s used to a tusi that’s 30 per cent MDMA, then buy a batch that’s 60 per cent. They might think they want to go really hard tonight, so take twice as much – but they’ve actually taken four times their normal dose.”
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So, what is the future for tusi? Julian Quintero, of Colombia’s Échele Cabeza, tells Mixmag (via a Google-translated email) that it’s currently the fifth-most used drug in Colombia – after, marijuana, ecstasy, LSD and cocaine. It now costs $15 a gram whereas, ten years ago it was $100 per gram. “It [tusi] is no longer an elite drug, it is in all social strata,” he says of its changing status, value and contents. “At first: yes, because of its high cost and because of the magic of secrecy. [Now] everyone knows the recipe. There is no secret anymore. The price has gone down, the quality has also gone down.”
What’s clear is that tusi is an icon of drugs marketing, perfect for an age where image is king. “I think branding is a major aspect of its popularity,” says James Morsh, founder of the drugs information organisation Pr. “The pink colour and lifestyle associated with tusi has given it a perceived value, which has driven a higher price point – when the reality is the contents of the drug do not justify it.”
Maybe it’s best summed up by another literary idiom: Never judge a book by its cover.
David Hillier is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter