Plenty of people’s drug of choice aint heroin or cocaine. Instead, their daily habit consisted of 4 ounces of prescription-strength cough syrup mixed with a 1-liter bottle of Big Red.
The codeine high, is a mellow one, well-suited to the city’s laid-back personality. You can often enhance the sensation by listening to a CD of hypnotic, slowed-down rap indigenous to my hometown.
“You just be wanting to chill and relax when you’re on syrup,” a local Houstonian said recently while completing a second stint in rehab at Riverside Hospital. “Your body starts nodding off. You feel tired, but also good. “I don’t have to be on it; I just prefer to be on it. I can’t relate to other drugs.”
Last year, area police confiscated 125 gallons of illegal codeine. Each year, they say, they encounter more abuse and more people coming to Houston looking for “syrup.” A substance abuse specialist at Riverside estimates that four out of five of his patients have at least tried it. Authorities as far east as Tennessee also report an increase in this peculiar form of drug abuse.
But everyone agrees that Houston is ground zero for this “quiet epidemic.”
“It’s a unique problem that started in this area,” said agent Jerry Neil Ellis of the Houston office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. ” . . . No matter where it was coming from, all across the country, it was headed for Houston. This is the hot spot.”
“We did notice that Houston was a big syrup city,” added Cynthia Glass of the Memphis, Tenn., Alcohol and Drug Council, who noted a blitz of experimentation that crossed all economic and ethnic lines in Memphis.”Any time rap stars are pushing their drug of choice, it’s going to pique curiosity, and youth are more apt to step into the unknown.”
The connection to music is not insignificant. Over the past decade or so, Houston has attained a national reputation in certain circles as home to an underground form of rap known as “screw music” that features familiar songs distorted into indiscernible tunes and lyrics that glorify the use of cough syrup as an intoxicant.
In October, Houston’s Dope House Records released the local-music anthology Screwston Vol. II: Pink Soda. The cover art depicts a soda vending machine that offers “Pink Sprite” and “Sippin Molases.” Another CD cover features an imposing rap singer pouring syrup from a Styrofoam cup over the Houston skyline.
“We’ve been sipping syrup since at least ’92 or ’93,” said Carlos Coy, a local rap star known as South Park Mexican. “That’s when screw (music) started getting popular. The two kinda go together.”
The Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse first noted the substance abuse trend in 1996. A TCADA study three years later reported an increasing prevalence and stated there was a lively street market for abusable cough syrup in Houston.
“Codeine does not get the attention that ecstasy or heroin gets; it’s just not that sexy,” said Dr. William Elwood, who headed the study. “It’s much more of a quiet epidemic.”
Codeine, like heroin, acts as a sedative. In most people, it turns into morphine when passed through the liver, according to epidemiologists. Common side effects include drowsiness and confusion.
On the street, codeine syrup is called “down,” “drank,” “nod” or “lean.” But it’s most commonly known as “syrup.”
Syrup is funneled to illegal users primarily through bogus prescriptions, unscrupulous pharmacists and physicians, and “doctor shopping,” the practice of making similar health complaints to different doctors in hopes of receiving multiple prescriptions.
The drug is never far away – at most a 10-minute car ride in a Third Ward-type neighborhood. Shout out to the Tre’.
“It’s the in thing to do,” added Sam Searcy of the Houston Police Department’s narcotics division. “People are coming from Louisiana to Houston looking for it.”
Large quantities have been confiscated from buses and trains. People have tried to smuggle it across the border from Mexico, where up to 50 doses can be bought without a prescription. On the illegal market, that would be about 8 ounces.
Syrup is perceived as safer than other illegal drugs because it is a manufactured product and, in Texas, possession of small quantities is only a Class B misdemeanor, just above a traffic ticket. Users also know it is relatively safe to have small amounts of syrup without fearing arrest.
There are about a dozen active cases in the Houston area involving large quantities of syrup.
The underground market flourishes. A 2-ounce dose, or “deuce,” can go for $30. But the syrup can fetch as much as $200 for 8 ounces.
In November 2000, Robert Earl Davis Jr., known as DJ Screw, who pioneered screw music in the early 1990s, was found dead in the restroom of his Commerce Park recording studio. He had died from a codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication, according to the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office, which ruled the death accidental. There were toxic levels of codeine in Davis’ blood, along with the powerful psychedelic drug PCP.
Davis’ legacy is the slowed-down and distorted music he created that put Houston on the rap map with a style of music to call its own. He would work with just about any song, from the latest Ice Cube release to an old Phil Collins tune.
Screw music sounds like a tape that’s been played too many times, making any artist sound like Barry White – turning the highest falsetto into a deep bass. It’s also “chopped,” which is like backing up parts of a song and repeating them, making it sound like a scratched record that skips.
“Screw heads,” as fans of the music are called, say the music sounds more melodic and hypnotizing, enhancing every intonation and expression in the lyrics.
Those who listen while high on codeine say the syrup amplifies the music.
“When you’re on lean and you listen to screwed music, you get a different feel,” said Erik “Einstein” Tealer of Dope House Records. “When you’re high and listening to it, it sounds bugged out. It sounds better.”
In many ways, the drug and the music have become synonymous.
Houston rapper Big Moe, one of the musicians to adopt DJ Screw’s style, titled his latest album City of Syrup. Its cover features purple liquid oozing over the city’s skyline.
Some of the lyrics of Big Moe’s song Po’ It Up, are “Smoking and leanin’. Hatas plotting and schemin’. . . . Who knows the feelin’, how it feels to lean, it’s cough syrup or barre promenthazine, sticky green, and po’ up an 8, an orange Sunkist, or a Welch’s grape, sip the sweet taste.”
“(Syrup use) has a major role in the music scene,” Tealer said. “Any album with the word syrup or any relation to codeine or pink cola is going to sell major units. “People are intrigued by that, and it’s been popularized by artists in this area.”
Law enforcement authorities say syrup has migrated to other cities in Texas and across the South. In fact, the most widely known song about syrup comes from Memphis, where the rap group Three 6 Mafia had a hit single titled Sippin On Syrup.
As evidence of this eastward expansion, DEA agent Michael Arpaio noted that the street cost of prescription-strength cough syrup in Memphis has risen from $25 an ounce a year ago to as much as $75 today. “Obviously,” he said, “that increase in price must mean a large increase in demand.”
So what started as a H-Town thing has spread across the country. Now-a-days you have professional athletes getting arrested for large amounts of “syrup” in their possession. With all the dead rappers in the past from “syrup” you’d figure people would lay off it, but the fact that it’s not perceived as a dangerous drug, it’s going to become even more popular…..
Have you have ever drank syrup? Would you drink some if you could afford it? Is there a safer drug of choice? Does Houston really have a problem?
Thanks for tuning in…..