Lean & Mean

There are plenty of reasons for Roscoe to sip tonight. It's a spring evening on the south side of Houston, pleasantly warm instead of oven-hot, and there's no place in particular Roscoe's got to be. No clock to punch, no girlfriend to see. No responsibilities except to the Styrofoam cup in his hand. There's music throbbing from a nearby open window, and Roscoe's drink will make the notes slow down and swell up until every nuance stands out in bold relief. There's money to be made, too, from the never-ending parade of fiends who approach him with crumpled bills and dirty change. The drink helps him deal with the crackheads, with their smell and contagious despair. There's also a lingering need, a feeling that almost pulls the cup to his lips of its own accord.

For guys like Roscoe (whose name has been changed), sipping codeine syrup mixed with soda is just a lifestyle accessory, like a pager or a pistol. Syrup is the drug of choice for most of the young hustlers that Roscoe runs with. If Rule No. 1 of drug dealing is never get high on your own supply, then Rule 1a. is stay high on something else. The use of drugs is inseparable from street life, which is inseparable from the drug-dealer aesthetic, which is inseparable from life itself on this South Park block.

Roscoe first started messing with syrup three years ago when he was 16. Back then, syrup was a new, exciting thing around the 'hood. It was like cocaine back in the late '70s and early '80s -- a status symbol. But it was still underground enough that $25 would get you an eight-ounce bottle, enough to keep you nice for about two days. Nowadays, though, everybody loves syrup, at least if all these rap songs are to be believed. And popularity means high prices. Today's eight ounces set Roscoe back $120. Maybe his tolerance has increased, or maybe his dealer is watering down the product, but Roscoe now needs half the bottle to achieve that delicious, delirious, on-the-edge-of-sleep feeling.

Truth is, Roscoe's a dope fiend, just like his faithful crackheads. Not that he's admitted it to himself. Syrup isn't really a drug drug -- it's pharmaceutical and regulated by the government. You can get it from the doctor or the drugstore, so it must be pretty safe. Plus you can drink it, and who ever heard of a hard drug you can drink? But Roscoe is an addict in the worst way -- the kind who feels physical pain without a fix. No one ever bothered to explain to him that codeine turns into morphine when it passes though the liver, and morphine ain't much different from heroin when it comes to getting you hooked.

It's too late for all that, though. Sipping from his cup, Roscoe absently scratches at himself. "That's how you know it's good," he says. "You get that itch."

"We call it liquid crack," Daphne Moore says. "That's really what it is."

As a primary investigator for a December 1999 study on codeine syrup, which was commissioned by the Texas Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA), Moore interviewed dozens of syrup users in Houston, the city that popularized the drug nationwide, about their addiction. Besides that, Moore is a social worker and a regular down-homegirl, as comfortable on street corners as in any office.

The study, conducted by drug epidemiologist Dr. William N. Elwood, found that syrup is easily obtainable, both by manipulating the health care system and on the underground illegal drug market. "You can always find some doctor who will [prescribe] you some syrup, and when you do, folks'll pass the word. The doctors compete for customers and will lower their rates," said one study participant, outlining a common scenario of paying cash for office visits. And with codeine syrup available without a prescription in Mexico, the underground market is thriving. "It's everywhere," the study quoted another user as saying. "Just as easy to get as [crack] rocks. You just need to know who to go to." Said another person of his syrup dealer: "He has these big jugs he fills the bottles with, and the labels are all in Spanish. He's got to be getting his stuff" from Mexico.

That was a year and a half ago. "When we did the study, syrup was just beginning to get popular," says Moore. "Now it's the thing to do. You hear about it in songs, people talk about it in everyday conversation. People will ask you, 'Where can I get some lean at?' There's a lean house right down the street from me."

The term "lean" is used regarding syrup somewhat like "nod" is used with heroin -- literally. One of the main effects of drinking codeine syrup is a loss of coordination. Other effects include a drowsy, relaxed high; fatigue; and a sense of mellowness. Those are the good things. The downside includes constipation, dry mouth, urinary retention -- and physical addiction.  

"Codeine is in the same category as heroin, morphine, Demerol and Percocet. They all work by the same mechanism," says anesthesiologist Dr. Jean-Max Hogarth. "Their greatest effects are lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, and respiratory depression. Depending on the level of carbon dioxide in your body, your body wants to breathe. Codeine changes the 'set point' so your body doesn't want to breathe until the carbon dioxide levels are really high. So you breathe less and less. When people overdose on codeine, they just stop breathing."

The casual way codeine is discussed in the 'hood, however, and especially in rap music, makes it seem like a drink is something to do on your way to the nightclub and then forget about in the morning. Elwood's study cites a widespread perception among codeine users that their preference is safer than other "street" drugs since it's an approved product regulated by the federal government. "It's clean, it's a pharmaceutical -- so it can't be that bad for you. It makes you sleepy, makes everything cool," one user said in the study. A 23-year-old married man with a full-time job said he preferred syrup over other drugs because "it's healthier for you than that stuff out on the streets."

"It just takes the edge off, man," a 44-year-old man said in the study. "You know, I just get to chill, zone out. Sometimes I just want to forget that I have HIV, that I have to take all these pills, and use a condom whenever I have sex, 'cause all that reminds me is that I'm sick. Drinking syrup is the only thing that lets me do that. I've never had a problem with any drugs. I never even thought I had a problem with drugs until I started thinking about my appointment here [at the doctor's office], and I realized I'm nothing but a tired old syruphead who's been hiding my habit from my doctor."

The fiends on Roscoe's block watch him closely. He's no mystery to them. Once he gets his lean on -- pouring an ounce or two of purple syrup into a big bottle of soda, shaking it up, then dispensing the concoction into his cup--it's not unusual for someone to slip into his house and slide out with his cash or valuables. Some of Roscoe's neighbors call him a volunteer dope dealer, because when you count the thefts against his sales and what he spends on syrup and weed, he's probably breaking even.

Roscoe looks like he might carry 110 pounds on his short frame. Sadness hangs on him like a stink. "I don't like being out here," he admits. He doesn't seem as if he's headed up the ladder of the dope game, and not just because of his addiction. Roscoe's a nice kid, a timid baby face among scarred souls. He's in over his head.

"We got to move outta here," he protests to a few of his drug-dealing partners who have congregated in his yard. Roscoe lives here with his mother, and she doesn't want them selling near her house. No one listens to him. They pass a cup his way instead.

The casual attitude about syrup is similar to how many feel about marijuana, which has practically been a youth staple since the 1960s. Despite being labeled by treatment professionals as a "gateway" drug that leads to more harmful substances, marijuana enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among youths in the early 1990s. This was largely because of rap music's most influential musician, Dr. Dre, who first gained fame with the gangsta rap progenitors N.W.A.

Dre's first solo album in 1992 -- titled The Chronic, after a popular strain of weed at the time -- was seminal hip-hop music. While he was hardly the first guy to rap about weed, no one had ever done it as well as Dre and his friends. More than any other record, The Chronic cemented marijuana's status as the drug of choice in a hip-hop lifestyle imitated by millions of young people around the world. (It was completely forgotten that a few years earlier Dre had rapped, "I don't smoke weed or cess, 'cause it's known to give a brother brain damage" on the N.W.A. tune "Express Yourself.")

"When The Chronic came out, all of a sudden you saw people wearing weed leaves on chains, medallions, shirts, everything," Moore says. "People would talk about chronic who never even smoked none." Ten years later the shock value has worn off. "Now weed is the po' bitch drug," Moore laughs. "It's practically a Christian drug now. Nobody else is smokin' weed, unless it's laced with nine or ten different chemicals."  

One of those chemicals has been embalming fluid, known as "fry" or "amp," which is often laced with PCP. This became popular in Houston in the early to mid-'90s, but the trend couldn't sustain itself because of the violent nature of the drug -- it's prone to giving folks hallucinations, violent outbursts and unexplainable rages. In short, fry doesn't make you cool. So along came syrup, which could make even Phil Gramm feel at ease in the Fifth Ward.

Another selling point for syrup has been its relative legality. "You can just walk right into Walgreens and buy it," says Elwood, the study author, in an interview. "No carding, you don't have to worry about getting arrested. So you can be living on the edge and really not be in that much trouble. With illegal street drugs, there's the danger of purchasing it. You might get arrested. Plus there's the danger in the content. You don't know what those drugs are cut with. You can cut coke with battery acid and give someone a complete high -- all the way up to heaven."

Not that Elwood is ringing the alarm about syrup use in particular; he has seen all kinds of drugs wax and wane. He notes that syrup has been popular before, in the late '60s and early '70s. Back then no prescription was needed. All you had to do was pay the pharmacist and sign your name -- or any name, for that matter -- to a register. "I don't mean to trivialize this at all, because it's a serious problem with tendrils into different communities and cultures and economic groups," he says. "But my feeling is that people have been getting high since there were people. The ancient Incas chewed coca leaves to get a buzz. The simple fact of a drug trend is not something to get excited about.

"I'm a drug epidemiologist. I track drug trends. I don't want to sound callous, but when you do what I do, you watch things rise and then peter out to the core group. So to me, the thing with syrup is not 'Oh, my God, what's going on?' It's 'What is it about kids that they need to self-medicate and seek thrills?' A few years back they did an evaluation of the drug program D.A.R.E. and found that it had no long-term effect in keeping kids off drugs." (Scientific studies differ on the effectiveness of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.) "Where is the outrage that there aren't new programs to replace DARE? Where is the outrage that there isn't a treatment program that actually works for kids?"

When Elwood is asked where one can find syrup users, there's a long pause before he replies: "Where you find hip-hop music."


Case 2000-3224
November 17, 2000
Robert Earl Davis, Jr.
7310 Corporate, #208
Houston, Texas

CAUSE OF DEATH: Codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication.


No one wanted to believe that DJ Screw died of a drug overdose (see "Life in the Slow Lane," by Jesse Washington, January 18). A lot of the denial sprung from Screw's iconic status in Houston -- he was a giant of generosity, the man who gave dozens of local rappers entrée into the rap game via his ubiquitous slowed-down mix tapes, never asking a thing in return. A Houston Chronicle story linking his death to codeine was met with anger and threats of violence against those quoted as saying Screw sipped syrup. Never mind that his tapes sometimes bore titles like Sippin' Codeine or Syrup and Soda, or that the liner notes to his album 3 'N the Morning carried these listening instructions: "Get with your click and go to that other level by sippin' syrup, gin, etc., smoke chronic indo, cess, bud, or whatever gets you to that other level."

But so many people loved Screw, and they wanted to remember him as Houston's greatest DJ ever -- not as an addict. "Who wants to be remembered as a dope fiend?" says one local rapper. "That's where the anger and denial came from."

The thing is, DJ Screw's music sounded best when high. Drugs and pop music have always been intertwined, ever since the first band played in the first bar, but Screw's dying-battery style just begged to be filtered through an altered consciousness. "You want the truth?" said rapper Mike D., a member of the DJ's Screwed Up Click, when a Texas Monthly reporter asked him how important syrup and weed are to Screw's music. "It's everything." Screw was indeed a great DJ, with an ear for hits and the hands of a Japanese chef on the turntables. But what Screw will always be remembered for is dragging down the speed of a record until folks swore he had created a whole new song. Often those folks were high. And if they weren't, they wondered what they were missing.  

Tosin, a recent college graduate who ran the now defunct Screw fan site, first heard about syrup on one of the DJ's tapes. "Weed never goes outta style, but drank is the new thing," says Tosin (pronounced "toe-SCENE"), who moved from Austin to New Orleans to attend Xavier University. "I tried syrup 'cause I heard about it on a Screw tape and in the 'hood. But music never made me do anything." Now he occasionally buys syrup from a pharmacy major at Xavier, paying $60 to $80 for four ounces or, if he's lucky, $250 for a pint. "It slows you down and relaxes your body and mind," he says. "You know that tired feeling you have, that little euphoria right before you go to sleep? That's the feeling. The best part is trying to fight off the sleep and keeping that feeling."

Impressionable young men aren't the only ones seduced by Screw's music. The writer of the Texas Monthly story, Michael Hall, a self-described "43-year-old white guy" fell under the spell as well. "Music is a dream, especially under the influence of certain drugs," Hall wrote. "And it was clear to me that I needed help understanding this Screw music. I needed syrup….Like a shift in the afternoon light, the bass got deeper and the keyboards began ringing like bells. I wasn't thinking about the music; I was feeling it."

It doesn't take drugs to enjoy Big Moe's album City of Syrup, which sold more than 100,000 copies for local label Wreckshop Records. The album cover shows Moe, one of Screw's protégés from the Screwed Up Click, inundating the downtown skyline with a river of purple fluid. The record opens with a re-enactment of Moe's birth; the doctor then tells his mother that codeine was found in her system. "What the fuck is codeine?" the Moe-mama demands. "It's like liquid heroin," the doctor replies before informing her that she has had "a barre baby."

You might have heard Moe's song "Barre Baby," which has been in heavy rotation on Houston radio, and not even realized what he was talking about. On the slow, catchy tune with baby voices singing the chorus, reminiscent of Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life," Moe soulfully croons about his love for barre, a particular type of syrup. It's not even the first hit song to celebrate syrup -- a Memphis group named Three 6 Mafia sold more than a million albums on the strength of its hit single, "Sippin' on da Syrup," which featured the Houston rap group UGK.

Elwood says that a fascination with trends is probably the main reason for the increase in syrup's popularity. "Drug-use trends begin in the African-American and gay communities," he says. "All kids are fascinated with rap. Because syrup is sung about, why wouldn't they be attracted to it?"

Ann Clark, drug prevention coordinator for the Houston Independent School District, agrees. "Anytime drugs are glamorized or promoted through the media, it is a problem," she says. "Young people tend to latch on to what is 'in' at the time, and if a favorite rap artist is promoting a certain drug, it increases the risk factors."

The most recent statistics for deaths related to cough syrup are from 1998, when TCADA counted three in Houston and 13 statewide. By all accounts, syrup use has greatly increased since then.

"Two years ago, all across the country, no one [in law enforcement] was mentioning syrup," says Jerry Ellis of the local Drug Enforcement Agency bureau. "Houston was the only place. Now it's branched out. It's in Austin, San Antonio, and is moving on up north."

Ellis's office has several active investigations into the syrup trade, and it has closed down at least two local pharmacies that were trafficking in the drug. But codeine syrup is classified as a Schedule V drug, at the very bottom of the scale of controlled substances. Under federal law, possession of a Schedule V drug is only a misdemeanor -- no matter what the quantity. It's a felony under state law to sell a Schedule V drug, but the disparity means that the DEA must prosecute most codeine syrup cases in state court, complicating its efforts to fight the problem.  

"We are paying a good amount of attention to this," Ellis says, and that appears to be the case -- at least from the DEA side. A spokeswoman for the local U.S. Customs office, the agency responsible for preventing the smuggling of illegal drugs from Mexico, says there have been no seizures along the Texas border in recent years.

An HPD officer who has been working narcotics for ten years -- making arrests, squeezing suspects for information, cultivating informants, moving up the ladder to bigger dealers -- has chased most drugs you can name and some you've never heard of. But in all that time, he has never made any arrests having to do with syrup. He knows it's out there. He's heard about seizures within his division, even one of multiple gallons. A guy he questioned recently said he was addicted and spent $80 for his four-ounce daily dose. People sometimes get arrested for various offenses and turn out to be carrying baby-food jars filled with an ounce or two of codeine. But syrup is basically a nonfactor in his life right now.

"We're not getting many seizures, no warrants. We're just missing it," the officer says. "We're not going after guys who use it, or the dealers. There's just a lack of intelligence on it. We're asking about coke, weed, heroin, meth, but we're overlooking the syrup. It's not like we won't pursue it, but we're not getting the leads to go after it. It's sitting on a back burner, I guess you could say. It's not much on the radar screen."

Is that because police aren't asking suspects about it? "Absolutely."

The cop, who didn't want his name used, is one of 200 HPD narcotics officers. There is a separate division dedicated to investigating the illicit use of prescription drugs. This division consists of two officers. "We investigate where it comes from," says one of those officers. "The narcotics guys investigate who has it."

The Texas State Board of Pharmacy, which has 18 people in its enforcement division, already knows where it comes from. "Unscrupulous doctors and those who get duped," says enforcement director Carol Fisher. "Forged prescriptions, stealing prescription pads, people printing their own. You can go to any printer and have pads made. You can get one legit prescription, take that data and make pads. Some pharmacies look the other way."

"The other way is through armed robberies and burglaries," Fisher continues. "We get reports on that. Employees of the pharmacy steal drugs. There are a myriad of ways to get the drug. It's a very hard problem to police when you have so many people -- street people -- engaged in trying to divert drugs."

Fisher says Houston has a bigger problem than any other part of the state. "No single agency can try to enforce the world. You can't regulate millions of people who live in Texas. If they're determined to get it, they'll get it. Criminals are going to be criminals. There's no simple answer; it's a multitasking thing, a community approach. Schools, parents -- everyone can do a better job."

"The majority of people who use syrup are youths," says Jeff Williams, a drug counselor at Houston Northwest Rehab. "Lots of kids use it as a downer, because of depression. They think, 'If I can stay down, not face my problems, I'll be okay.' They use that instead of dealing with their issues. Syrup is going to be around for a while. There's more promotion for it. Rappers are promoting it."

"It might be here for a long time," says Moore, the social worker. "But eventually it'll die. Then the new generation will be smoking Sheetrock or something, and there will be no more buildings left."

The consensus on Roscoe's block is that he'll end up a crackhead. It's only a matter of time before he seeks out that stronger high, starts tapping his own supply of rocks. Asked what his plans are for the future, Roscoe can barely muster a shrug. Big Moe's smooth tenor floats through the night air…

Pour you a glass
Instead of beatin' on yo ass
Take a chill pill Bill
Blow some kill, pop the steel
Since we won't be seen
Sippin' syrup till we lean
From the dirty third coast it ain't no roach G
So fill your cup to the brim and have a toast with me.

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