Purple drank is a slang term for a concoction which includes a prescription-strength cough syrup used in a manner inconsistent with its labeling, as a recreational drug. The mixture became popular in the hip hop community in the southern United States, originating in Houston.
The prescription-strength cough syrup used in purple drank contains codeine and promethazine (not to be confused with dextromethorphan; DXM). The cough syrup, used in doses much higher than medically recommended, is typically mixed with ingredients such as the soft drink Sprite or Mountain Dew and optionally "a Jolly Rancher hard fruit candy thrown in for extra sweetness." The purplish hue of purple drank comes from dyes in the cough syrup. The amount of cough syrup used "can exceed up to 25 times the recommended dose." The concoction is "Typically consumed out of Styrofoam cups".
The physiological effects of purple drank on the user is to produce mild "euphoric side effects", which are accompanied by "Motor-skill impairment, lethargy, drowsiness, and a dissociative feeling from all other parts of the body". Houston author Lance Scott Walker points out that the super-sweet combination of soda, cough syrup, and jolly ranchers provides a flavor and mouth-feel that provides a taste that due to the syrup stays on the tongue - causing users to obsess on the sweetness on their tongues all day. This phenomenon is often appealing to first time users. Purple drank is often used in combination with alcohol and/or other drugs.
In an article following the hospitalization of the rapper Lil Wayne alleged to be related to purple drank, the LA Times spoke to physician and hospitalist Dr. George Fallieras, on the hazards of the concoction.
Fallieras stated that in its intended usage "The codeine in the medicine serves as a pain reliever and also suppresses coughing. A second drug in the cough syrup, known as promethazine, is used as an antihistamine and commonly used to treat motion sickness and nausea. It’s also a bit of a sedative -- employed partly to keep people from drinking too much of the stuff. This is a very common cough syrup that, when taken in appropriately prescribed quantities, is quite safe."
Dangers arise in higher dosages because "promethazine is a depressant of the central nervous system" and "More importantly, codeine is a respiratory depressant, when taken in very large amounts, it can cause people to stop breathing."
Using alcohol and other drugs alongside purple drank increases the chance of problems "A lot of times these guys are not just drinking the purple drink, they’re also drinking alcohol. And potentially in combination with alcohol and other drugs -- all of these together can be a lethal cocktail."
Fallieras stated that the concoction does not cause seizures itself but increases their likelihood in those susceptible to them as "high doses of the drink would probably precipitate seizures only in patients who were already prone to them."
Fallieras also pointed out that a major drawback to the drink is its use of the opiate codeine "the same family of drugs as heroin and morphine -- and can be very addictive in high doses. ...the amount of codeine these guys ingest with the syrup is massive … it’s just the same as someone being addicted to heroin, except they’re not using needles." In addition "promethazine has at least anecdotally been noted to intensify the euphoric effects of codeine in the brain."
As it contains an opiate and can become addictive, trying to discontinue regular usage can bring about symptoms of withdrawal. Fallieras described a patient's recollections of such symptoms and their adding to the difficulty in quitting "'Imagine the worst flu when you’re shivering, you’re vomiting, you can’t eat, you have diarrhea, every atom in your body hurts, you can’t sleep, you lie on the floor just shivering … and multiply that times a million.' And you know if you can just take the pill or inject yourself with heroin, that it just all goes away."
Similar sentiments about withdrawal were stated by the rapper Lil Wayne, in a 2008 interview with MTV News, who said it “feels like death in your stomach when you stop. Everybody wants me to stop all this and all that. It ain't that easy."
According to Houston based author Lance Scott Walker, purple drank developed in that city around the 1960s when Blues musicians would take Robitussin and cut it with beer. Later when wine coolers came unto the market, they substituted for beer. These Blue's musicians lived in Houston's 5th ward, 3rd ward, and South Park neighborhoods and the practice was taken up by the generation of rappers growing up in the same parts of the city. In the 1980s and 1990s the formula changed to using codeine promethazine cough syrup, lemon-lime flavored soda, and jolly ranchers.
Professor Ronald Peters, also a Houston resident, points out that purple drank remained a local Houston phenomenon until the 1990s rapper DJ Screw released several tunes mentioning the drink in his mixtapes which were extremely popular in the Houston area.
Walker holds that DJ Screw's music was particularly appropriate for Houston's climate. Due to the heat and expanse of the Houston area residents spent long drives in their cars, "the music that most appropriately complements that has always been the music of DJ Screw, it's slowed down - and when I say slowed down I mean he would record sessions in his apartment with rappers freestyling over beats and he would make these big mixtapes and then he would actually slow them down even further on his cassette recorder." DJ Screw's invoking purple drank in his lyrics and his use of slow tempos, has caused his style to be characterized "As if the song itself has taken too much codeine promethazine". Rappers outside of Houston soon adopted aspects of his style.
Walker points out that purple drank had never been stigmatized in Houston, but with the apparently purple drank related early death of DJ Screw, the concoction became the focus of law enforcement in the Houston area with felony charges being applied for some aspects surrounding it.
Houston producer DJ Screw popularized the concoction, which is widely attributed as a source of inspiration for the "chopped and screwed" style of hip hop music. The promethazine and codeine concoction first gained popularity in the underground rap scene in Houston, where musician Big Hawk said it was consumed as early as the 1960s and 1970s, becoming more widely used in the early 1990s. Because of usage by rap artists in Houston, it became more popular in the 1990s. Its use later spread to other southern states.
In June 2000, Three 6 Mafia's single "Sippin' on Some Syrup," featuring UGK, brought the term "purple drank" to a nationwide audience. Three 6 Mafia's single "Rainbow Colors" featuring Lil' Flip pertains to the consumption of purple drank; the addition of a Jolly Rancher candy to a cup of purple drank creates a spectrum of colors, hence the name.
In 2004, the University of Texas found that 8.3% of secondary school students in Texas had taken codeine syrup to get high. The Drug Enforcement Administration reports "busts" involving syrup across the southern United States, particularly in Texas and Florida.
Notable deaths from use
Purple drank is confirmed or suspected to have caused the deaths of several prominent users. Respiratory depression is a potentially serious or fatal adverse drug reaction associated with the use of codeine, but mainly the danger lies in the much more potent and CNS-depressing phenothiazine-related antihistamine promethazine. This depression is dose-related and is the mechanism for the potentially fatal consequences of overdose: respiratory or cardiac arrest. As with most CNS depressants, mixing with alcohol greatly increases the risk of respiratory failure and other complications.
Big Moe, a DJ Screw protégé whose albums City of Syrup and Purple World were based on the drink and who has been described as having "rapped obsessively about the drug," died at age 33 on October 14, 2007, after suffering a heart attack one week earlier that left him in a coma. There was speculation that purple drank may have contributed to his death.
Pimp C, widely influential Port Arthur, Texas rapper and a member of rap duo UGK, was found dead on December 4, 2007, at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, California. The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office reported that the rapper's death was "due to promethazine/codeine effects and other unestablished factors." Ed Winter, assistant chief of the Coroner's Office, said the levels of the medication were elevated, but not enough to deem the death an overdose. However, Pimp C had a history of sleep apnea, a condition that causes one to stop breathing for short periods during sleep. A spokesman for the coroner's office said that the combination of sleep apnea and cough medication probably suppressed Pimp C's breathing long enough to bring on his death.
Other notable incidents
In September 2006, Terrence Kiel, a San Diego Chargers player, was arrested during practice for the possession with intent to sell prescription cough syrup for use in making the drink. Kiel was caught trying to ship a case of syrup to a friend via FedEx. Kiel was charged with two felony counts of transporting a controlled substance and three counts of possession for sale of a controlled substance.
On July 8, 2008, Johnny Jolly, a Green Bay Packers player, was pulled over in his car for excessive music. The officers found a Dr Pepper bottle in a holder next to two Styrofoam cups containing soda and ice. The officers said the cups and the bottle all emitted "strong odors of codeine." The case was dismissed at first, but charges were refiled in December 2009 after the Houston Police Department's acquired new equipment that allowed the police to test the evidence again. Jolly faced a possible maximum sentence of up to 20 years in jail, but as a first time offender he would be eligible for probation.
On July 5, 2010, former Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell was arrested at his home in Mobile, Alabama, for possession of codeine syrup without a prescription. He was arrested as part of an undercover narcotics investigation. Russell was booked into city jail and released soon afterwards after making his bail.
On June 11, 2013, just days after being robbed at gunpoint in San Francisco, rapper 2 Chainz was arrested at Los Angeles international airport on charges of possessing marijuana and promethazine and codeine, the primary ingredients of purple drank.
The most popular type of codeine syrup is promethazine-codeine, a prescription cough syrup. The active ingredients are codeine, a narcotic, and promethazine, an antihistamine. When taken in large quantities, both medications can lead to sedation and altered levels of consciousness. The inclusion of the antihistamine is intended to deter abuse, as doses higher-than-recommended can produce extreme somnolence, clinical weakness, and ultimately, fatal hypoventilation (inadequate breathing to sustain life). In lower doses, the antihistamine targets cold symptoms through reducing both swelling and vasodilation; it also acts to potentiate the opiate codeine.
Prescription cough syrups containing hydrocodone are also used to make similar drinks, though they are less popular. Songs like "Sippin' on Some Syrup" by Three 6 Mafia refer to Tussionex, a yellow cough syrup containing extended-release hydrocodone and chlorpheniramine (another antihistamine). Other hydrocodone-containing syrups such as Histinex HC, Hycotuss, and Hycodan may also be used, but Hycodan has added homatropine to deter abuse. Syrup also is made with over-the-counter cough syrups such as Robitussin DM, which contain dextromethorphan as the cough suppressant. Although dextromethorphan is used recreationally, it has dissociative effects as opposed to narcotic. Dextromethorphan is a synthetic morphine analog, although without opioid activity that morphine has, that has been on the market in the United States since the 1950s. It is a cough suppressant in small doses, but in large doses it can result in a disassociative state, with hallucinations, similar to that produced by PCP or ketamine.
Promethazine-codeine contains 10 mg of codeine and 6.25 mg of promethazine per 5 mL.
Mentions in hip hop
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Notable references to purple drank have appeared in several hip hop tunes, these include:
- DJ Screw featuring Big Moe, 'Sippin' Codeine' (1998)
- Jay-Z featuring UGK, 'Big Pimpin' (1999)
- Three 6 Mafia, 'Sippin' On Some Syrup' (2000)
- Three 6 Mafia featuring Lil Flip, 'Rainbow Colors' (2003)
- Beanie Sigel featuring Bun B, 'Purple Rain' (2005)
- Paul Wall, 'Sippin' Tha Barre' (2005)
In addition to its popularization in the music of DJ Screw and Three 6 Mafia, the mixture has been referenced in lyrics of other rappers. It is the subject of UGK's "Sippin and Spinnin" and "Purple Drank", as well as tracks by D12, Eminem, Lil' Wyte, Big Moe, Lil Boosie, Far East Movement, Paul Wall, Bun B, Pimp C, Esham, Mike Jones, Kanye West, T.I., Rick Ross, Birdman, Future, Lil' Flip, Lil' Wayne, Left Brain, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, Playaz Circle, Fat Joe, Beanie Sigel, Project Pat, Chamillionaire, Lou Bega, French Montana, Kirko Bangz, Jim Jones, The Game, Slim Thug, Fat Pat, Kreayshawn, Frayser Boy, Gorilla Zoe, YC, Z-RO, Youngbloodz, 8Ball, Papoose, Drake, Jae Millz, Meek Mill, Mack Maine, Ace Hood, Juicy J, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, Plies, ASAP Rocky, Tech N9ne, Trae, Young Buck, E-40, Yelawolf, Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller and Ab-Soul, the latter of whom has crafted an ode to lean titled, "Mixed Emotions".
Left Brain References Purple Drank in Hodgy Beats' song, "CRAP Featuring. Left Brain". He is heard singing the lyric "I'm sippin' on that promethazine/codeine Sprite" which are the main ingredients in Purple Drank.
New Orleans rapper Lil' Wayne has publicly acknowledged his use of purple drank, and his lyrics frequently mentions drinking purple drank. In the Duffle Bag Boy music video he can be seen holding a Styrofoam cup with "RIP DJ Screw" written on it. In his freestyle to "Throw Some D's" on his mixtape Da Drought 3 he claims "I'm not a rookie, I'm a pro..methazine fiend" as well as stating "You know what's in my Styrofoam...what? S-Y-R-UP." He also mentions the substance in the track "Barry Bonds" from Kanye West's Graduation album, saying "My drink is still pinker than the Easter Rabbit," an overt reference to the color of the beverage. Wayne makes a similar reference in DJ Khaled's song "We Takin' Over." On March 15, 2013, it was reported that Wayne had been admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after being discovered "shaking uncontrollably" and "unconscious". Doctors found a high amount of codeine in his system and his stomach had to be pumped three times. He was said to be in critical condition. The rapper's associates were quick to deny rumors that he was near death, and he was released on March 18.
Seattle rap artist Macklemore used his experience with substance abuse, including use of purple drank, to create the critically acclaimed song "Otherside," which contains the lines: "Syrup, Percocet, and an eighth a day will leave you broke, depressed, and emotionally vacant/ Despite how Lil Wayne lives / It's not conducive to being creative."
Several legal commercial products loosely based on the concept of "purple drank" are marketed in the United States. In June 2008, Innovative Beverage Group, a Houston, Texas-based company, released a beverage called "Drank." The commercial product contains no codeine or promethazine, but claims to "Slow Your Roll" with a combination of herbal ingredients such as valerian root and rose hips as well as the hormone melatonin. Similar "relaxation" or "anti-energy" drinks on the commercial market use the names "Purple Stuff", "Sippin Syrup", and "Lean".
These commercial products have been criticized for their potential to serve as gateways to the dangerous illegal concoction. At a mental health conference in February 2010, Dr. Ronald Peters, Jr., of the University of Texas Health Science Center said of "Drank": "They're taking the name, and they're trying to market it to young people." He described the beverage as "the worst thing I've ever seen on the street since the making of candy cigarettes."
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