While the rise of prescription opioid addiction in America has become a big talking point in the past few years, there’s another prescription drug addiction that’s gone largely uncommented upon: promethazine/codeine. In fact, when codeine addiction is discussed, it’s usually either glamorized in hip-hop as “drank,” “purple stuff,” and “sizzurp,” or meme-ified by the wider culture (particularly once it became associated with Justin Bieber). So Timothy Bella of Bloomberg Businessweek decided to take an investigative approach to the rise of “drank” and how codeine manufacturers have now become inextricably linked to the hip-hop community.
The powerful cough syrup was developed in the 1950s and was already being used recreationally by the 1960s. Today it’s most often mixed with soda and/or candy and sipped out of a Styrofoam cup. Bella notes that while measuring codeine abuse tends to be a low priority, codeine (in all forms) was the reported cause of 11,000 U.S. emergency room visits in 2011, according to the Department Of Health And Human Services. As he writes:
In the two decades since promethazine codeine was first reported as a substance abuse trend, pharmaceutical companies have rarely acknowledged, let alone taken steps to combat, the illegal market. By contrast the companies most closely associated with the broader opioid epidemic have occasionally been called to account for their practices and have defended themselves publicly. For example, the maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma LP, in 2007 pleaded guilty to charges of misleading regulators, doctors, and the public about the addiction risks of its product; Purdue has since said that it reformulated the drug to give it “abuse-deterrent properties” and that it’s funding programs to help prevent pharmacy robberies.
Bella’s lengthy piece digs into the history of promethazine codeine manufacturers and the ways in which the drug is bought and sold on the street. And he speaks to former codeine addict DJ Lil Randy, who argues, “As long as promethazine codeine stays in the hip-hop, impoverished, and less fortunate communities, it’s not going to be addressed by these companies.”