Cough Syrup Abuse in Texas Takes Center Stage

A federal retrial may shine the spotlight on a recreational drug whose use has given Houston the unwanted nickname "City of Syrup" and may already be an overlooked national problem.

Houston teenagers have been increasingly abusing prescription codeine-promethazine hydrochloride cough syrup and mixing it with soda, alcohol or candy in a concoction known as "syzurp" or "purple stuff." This trend may be illustrated in the retrial of six pharmacists accused of illegally dispensing the potentially addictive cough syrup.

The pharmacists on trial are: John David Wiley III, 40; Anthony Dwayne Essett, 38; Otukayode Adeleke Otufale, 40; Isaac Simeon Achobe, 50; Chicha Kazembe Combs, 29; and Andre Dion Brown, 37. In a 170-count indictment, they are charged with illegally dispensing gallons of the cough syrup and tablets of the narcotic painkiller hydrocodone, money laundering and conspiracy. Their first trial ended in a mistrial in May when a jury was unable to reach a verdict after four days of deliberation.

A Growing National Problem?

Studies by the University of Texas School of Public Health in 2003 and 2004 found that 25 percent of at-risk Houston teenagers said that they had used the cough syrup, with 10 percent claiming they had used the drug within 30 days of being questioned for the study.

Experts say abuse of the syrup could already be a national problem and parents and government officials need to be aware of its danger and powerful addictive potential.

"It started in Houston, but there has been no national surveillance of this drug," said Ron Peters, assistant professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health and lead author of the two studies. "But in my opinion this is already a national problem. You have rappers who have spread the word on syrup just by talking about what's going on in their community. And you have teens who have learned about and talked about syrup just by what they've seen on the Internet."

Besides purple stuff and syzurp, the addictive cough syrup concoction has also been known as "lean," "drank," "barre," "purple jelly," or simply, "syrup." Those who have had the drug refer to its intake as "sipping on syrup." In Peters' studies, he found that 54 percent of admitted syzurp users were black, with 33 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Caucasian. Eighty-one percent of the admitted users in the study were male.

The Allure of 'Player's Potion'

In addition to its powerful addiction, syzurp's danger, experts say, lies in its trendiness. It is a recreational drug drink, mixed with soda and alcohol, and has become as socially acceptable among teens as drinking and smoking.

"There have been so many stories of overdoses, of people drinking syrup at a party and then falling asleep behind the wheel when they try to drive home," said Peters. "It is an opiate and that makes it a very dangerous, addictive substance. On the streets, it's considered a 'players' potion.' If you're not sipping on the syrup, you're not a player or cool."

Psychedelic 'Screw' Music Scene

It is believed that syrup was popularized in Houston by local disc jockey DJ Screw, who is credited with developing "screw" music, a slow, toned-down form of rap. Screw -- who died in 2000 of an overdose of the drug -- said listening to his music was like sipping the syrup. His music is intended mimic the "high" of syrup abuse.

"It has given forth a whole new hip-hop sound, which is very slowed down and slightly psychedelic because when you sip syrup, you slow things down," said Joe Levy, an editor at Rolling Stone.

The death of Screw -- born Robert Earl Davis Jr. -- did not dim syzurp's popularity, as teens have continued to use it and rap artists today mention it in their songs. Houston-based rapper DJ Paul Wall is among the artists today who continue to produce screw music and mention the abuse of syrup.

"Most rap artists say I am simply talking about the world in which I live, and to a large extent, that is correct," said Rolling Stone's Levy. "These rappers often talk about the consequences of the life that they lead. While they may be talking about drug abuse and celebrating it in one song, in another song they will talk about the consequences of drug dealing."

Listen and Learn

Peters said he hoped his studies -- and the federal retrial of the six pharmacists -- will make government leaders aware of the problem of prescription cough syrup abuse and its potential national effects.

Erratic behavior and insomnia, or an inability to sleep without using syzurp, he said, are among the warning signs that someone may be addicted to the drug. However, Peters recommends that parents monitor what their children read on the Internet and what they listen to on the radio and their iPods.

"Parents should really encourage their children to play their music in the car, listening closely to what they're playing, open a dialogue," Peters said. "And it's so easy for young people to get addicted to something because they hear about it and think it's cool and they don't know its dangers."

ABC News Radio contributed to this report.

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