Leanin’: Codeine and the Houston Rap Scene Lean, Purple Drank, and Texas Oil are all

names for a recreational drug consisting of a prescription cough syrup containing codeine. Codeine is a natural opiate derivative that is used for its analgesic, cough suppressant, and anti-diarrheal properties. In the United States, codeine is currently listed as a schedule II drug, meaning that it has an extremely high potential for abuse and addiction. Additionally, its scheduling signifies that it does have accepted medical use for certain treatments in the U.S., but it can only be obtained through a doctor’s prescription. Being relatively weak compared to other opiate derivatives, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, the codeine abuse trend in the U.S. has seen a drop off, according to a 2003 online report published by the Drug Abuse Warning Network. This report showed that between the years of 1994 and 2001, codeine abuse fell more than 60 percent at the national level. More recent reports show that this trend is continuing, albeit at rate not quite as high as during the earlier decade. This is not to say, however, that the problem of codeine abuse is quickly disappearing from public view. On the contrary, certain regions of the United States are still experiencing high amounts of codeine abuse and are seeing the number of these abusers rise as opposed to the national trend. One such area, in particular, is Houston, Texas and the surrounding region of eastern Texas. In this region, there is a marked increase in the number of inner-city youths using a prescription cough syrup containing codeine as its main active ingredient. According to a study performed by the University of Texas, 8.3% of Texas secondary school students have, at one point, taken enough of this codeine syrup to get high. Another study done on the usage rates of this drug among youths had this usage number upwards of 40% in the region surrounding Houston. On their own, these statistics may seem somewhat insignificant and may just show a number of kids experimenting with drugs; however, when considered along with the relatively new local style of

music that has risen in prominence during the same time as this drug abuse trend, it is clear that it is most definitely a significant problem. This music, known as “Screw” music, has become the basis for an entire drug subculture centered on these codeine laced prescription cough syrups. This paper seeks to explore why this drug abuse trend is rising in this area by examining this prominent subculture based on this drug, codeine, in its cough syrup form. In the identification of this subculture, the various motivations and enabling factors that have lead to the current state of this drug abuse trend will be investigated and analyzed. In addition, the various drug use rituals, routes of administration of the drug and the social meanings behind these will be elaborated upon. How this drug abuse problem is viewed by the media and the public are also important factors that must be considered during the examination of this subculture. Linked to this public perception are the drug policies that control this drug, which will also be investigated. Finally, the legacy left by this subculture will be explained and predictions of the longevity of this drug abuse trend will also be made, based off the current drug abuse patterns of this subculture. Screwed Up In the early 1990s, a Houston disc jockey by the name of Robert Earl “DJ Screw” Davis began producing a new style of music that he called screw music. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Davis would be creating the basis of a new drug subculture, one that had codeine-laced cough syrups as its central artifact. The main identifying characteristic of this new musical style was a notably slowed down, almost hypnotic beat, supposedly mimicking the effects that the codeine contained in the cough syrup had on the user. Being a user of these prescription cough syrups himself, it is widely believed that the main source of inspiration behind Davis’ new style of slowed-down music came from the experiences he had while under the influence of these

prescription cough syrups. The sedative effects of the drugs caused him to experience everything in slow motion, giving him the idea to begin making music in this same fashion, slowed down. The fact that Davis was high on a prescription cough syrup when he created this subgenre of music served to permanently bond codeine and this new musical style together in that in order to truly appreciate screw music, one had to also partake in the calming and sedative effects of the codeine in these prescription cough syrups. Initially, this pattern of recreational prescription cough syrup use and listening to or producing “screwed” music was limited to Davis and other local rappers and disk jockeys that he was associated with and typically, these songs would reference heavily the usage of these prescription cough syrups. However, eventually the popularity of this screw music grew and with it, the message of recreational prescription cough syrup use spread among fans of the new musical subgenre. These fans, comprised mostly of inner-city young adults and youths who were already most likely desensitized to the issue of recreational drug use, now saw this prescription cough syrup use as something that was socially acceptable not only among their peers, but among the rappers and disk jockeys that most of them respected and idolized. In order to be “cool” like them and to properly enjoy this new form of music, they would need to partake in the abuse of these prescription cough syrups containing codeine. To these fans, the syrup was known as a “player potion” and is a must in order to be considered a “player”. So the foundations for a new drug subculture had been laid; a willing field of potential new users was ready to be converted to this new, “screw” subculture. However, one more crucial ingredient was needed for this screw mindset to take hold: a supply of the codeine-laced cough syrup to be readily available on the street. Being a schedule II prescription drug, this could be too large of an obstacle for most fledgling drug subcultures trying to take hold, but the locale of

Houston, Texas afforded this new subculture a few unique opportunities of supply that allowed it to take hold among its residents. For instance, in Mexico, cough syrup containing codeine is available over-the-counter in small quantities. After purchasing and stockpiling a large enough quantity, smugglers then take them across the border into Texas for sale on the street. Theft at the manufacturing or distribution levels is another route for street dealers to acquire the syrup. Also contributing to the supply were corrupted doctors and pharmacists filling bogus prescriptions for the syrup. For instance, in the summer of 2005, seven Houston pharmacists and a doctor were convicted of illegally diverting over 2500 gallons of the cough syrup through the creating and filling of phony prescriptions. The final destination of these diverted gallons was the street, where the black market prices were several times what the actual label price is. Even those doctors who are actually trying to help a patient’s cough contributed to illicit supply; faking a cough is not a difficult thing to do and it has been done to many unwitting doctors. Rituals of the Screw Subculture As with any subculture centered on a drug, a number of usage rituals arise when investigating the use of prescription cough syrups containing codeine in the screw music scene. While the main way that a member of this screw subculture ingests their codeine is by way of the syrup, which also contains other active ingredients such as the antihistamine promethazine, this is not to say that it is the only way members of this drug subculture get their fix. A small fraction takes their codeine in tablet form; however, for those who are familiar with the scene, this route of administration is “just not the same as sippin’ on the syrup.” To more traditional members of the screw subculture, simply popping a pill to get the codeine does not do justice to what the scene is about. In order to truly be a part of the culture, one must actually sip on the syrup, as they say. Another route through which users will administer the drug is by way of the lungs. Typically,

however, this method involves pairing the prescription syrup with another drug, such as cannabis, and is elaborated on below. For the majority of the subculture members who do enjoy their codeine in the prescription syrup form, there are still a multitude of options for them to customize, so to speak, their drink. It is quite popular for users to mix a few ounces of the codeine prescription cough syrup with a larger amount of soda. Preferably, this soda is lemonlime in flavor and in this form, the drug is now known as “Purple Drank”, where the purple in this name comes from the color of the syrup dye. Those who choose this mixture tend to only sip on the drink for hours at a time, prolonging the effects of the drug. Thus the term “sippin’ on syrup” arose. Additionally, users of purple drank may add candy to the mixture, to change the flavor of the drink to something a bit more palatable. Users are not limited to soda and candy, however, and some choose to mix the prescription syrup with other types of drinks, such as juices and sports drinks. Basically, a user may mix the prescription syrup with any type of drink, depending on their preference. In addition to those members of the screw subculture who mix their prescription syrup with other drinks, there are those who prefer to drink the cough syrup straight with no dilution. It is the general consensus among members of the screw subculture that this type of consumption is very extreme and is the tell tale sign of a full blown addiction to the codeine cough syrups. In addition to the customizations that a user can make to their prescription syrup, another widely-held practice among the more experienced members of this subculture is to mix the codeine cough syrup with other drugs, mainly alcohol and cannabis. For alcohol, the practice can be similar to the mixing of the syrups with soda, in that shots of hard liquor are added to the syrup, which is then sipped on over an extended period of time. It is reported that the addition of alcohol to the drink mix brings the user’s high to “a whole new level,” according to someone

familiar with the screw subculture. However, as with any of the opiates, mixing codeine with alcohol can be very dangerous and has led to deaths. Still, this practice remains popular among the true members of the screw music community. Marijuana is another popular drug among the members of this subculture and is prominent in this culture both alone and paired with the drug. Typically, members of this culture will smoke blunts (cigars that have been gutted and had the tobacco replaced with cannabis) with either the rolling paper soaked in the prescription syrup or the cannabis itself laced with the syrup. As with the alcohol, the purpose of mixing cannabis with the prescription syrup is to intensify the high of the codeine. This form of syrup intake is almost exclusively done in a group setting, signifying that a candy coated blunt, as they call it in the screw subculture, is a social event and a somewhat special occasion. Lean’s Media Image The media profile that this subculture is given is a very interesting and polarizing one. On one side are the high profile screw subculture members, that is the rappers and disk jockeys who openly endorse the recreational use of prescription cough syrups containing codeine through their music and music videos. In the songs themselves, lean is openly glorified and the lyrical content is laced with references to the artists themselves using the lean. To these rappers, the lean is a cultural symbol to them which gives the subculture an identity through which the entire nation can associate with their music. This, in turn, leads to more exposure of their music and the message they spread about using these codeine-containing cough syrups, causing more impressionable youths to be introduced to the drug. Additionally, the rappers use their music videos as a way to endorse their favorite codeine concoction, albeit in a clandestine way. Due to regulations on the content that can be in music videos, the drug itself is never shown. However, the elites of the screw subculture still find a way to openly endorse their recreational drug in their

video through a simple yet powerful object: the Styrofoam cup. Originating back when screw music was still in its fledgling stage where the original members of the screw subculture primarily used Styrofoam cups as a vessel from which they drank their lean, use of this type of cup spread along with the subculture and has stood the test of time to become a major symbol in the screw subculture. It is due to these positive media portrayals that the recreational use of these prescription coughs syrups has become socially accepted by many Houstonians and Texans in general. The other side of the media coverage of this subculture is blunt about the illegality of the recreational abuse of prescription cough syrups containing codeine and the negative effects associated with this drug. They claim this screw subculture is turning the youth of Texas into a bunch of codeine addicts who are so sedated that they should be considered codeine zombies. The images they portray of this subculture show the users as incoherent to the point where their motor skills have eroded to the point where they can no longer stand up straight. The mass media stresses the illegality of this recreational use and touts the dangers of using this drug. Articles about deaths from cough syrup with codeine overdoses are abound and the high profile ones are used as permanent reminders of this mortal danger. The founder of the screw culture himself, Robert “DJ Screw” Davis, was a victim of a codeine overdose and the media is quick to bring this fact up. Drug Policy Although codeine itself is a schedule II drug according to the Controlled Substances Act, most cough syrups containing codeine are listed as Schedule V. According to the Act, this placement signifies that it “may not be distributed or dispensed other than for a medical

purpose.” However, being a schedule V drug, these prescription cough syrups may not have received the attention that other drugs higher up on the scheduled garnered, such as heroin or cocaine, and some of the illegal diversion of the cough syrups to the street may have slipped under the radar. Additionally, in the early stages of this screw subculture, before it was an issue that the public was made aware of, doctors and pharmacists themselves may have been somewhat lax in there prescribing and selling of the syrup to some less than reputable patients. However, with the recent spotlight cast on this new drug abuse trend, the public has been made more aware of the screw subculture and an outcry has been made for tighter regulation of the syrup. While the codeine syrups have yet to be rescheduled to a higher, more strictly regulated class, efforts at both the national and local level have been made in an attempt to stem the tide of this screw subculture. Nationally, the Drug Enforcement Agency has been cracking down on the illegal trafficking of the codeine syrups and there have been several recent highprofile arrests of this nature. For instance, ex-football player Terrence Kiel of the San Diego Chargers NFL team was charged in 2006 with illegally shipping cases of prescription cough syrup to East Texas. This was one of the first major busts of a high-profile member of the screw subculture and served to bring the issue of codeine cough syrup abuse to the public’s attention. At the local level, pharmacists and doctors have been working to limit the amount of these codeine-laced cough syrups they prescribe. Due to this drug abuse trend coming to national attention, doctors are much more reluctant to prescribe these codeine cough syrups. It now takes much more than simply faking a cough to be prescribed this drug. Additionally, pharmacists have been just as reluctant to fill prescriptions for the cough syrups. Due to a fear of forged prescriptions, some pharmacists have gone so far as to stop carrying the drug all together. Others

will simply say they do not carry the drug if they feel that the buyer is of the less-than-reputable variety. Future As it stands currently, it would appear that the screw subculture is far from disappearing. Due to the popularity of the music and the high potential for addiction to the screw subculture’s drug of choice, the grip of this subculture on Houston does not seem to be loosening and is spreading to other parts of the nation. Extremely prominent and popular rappers and members of the screw community, such as Dwayne “Lil’ Wayne” Carter, use their stages and public appeal to spread, through their music, the message of the screw subculture to the entire nation. Even with the several high profile deaths attributed to the codeine cough syrups, including those of some of the originating members of the screw subculture, the cough syrup abuse trend is one that does not appear to be slowing. The fact that there is legitimate medical use for these codeine cough syrups ensures that there will always be a supply of codeine for members of this subculture. Because of this, it appears that the screw mentality is something that will continue indefinitely; that is, at least until “screwed-up” music is no longer popular.