Daily Egyptian

How one Chicago suburb is tied to notorious codeine cocktail

By Lindsey Compton, Chicago Tribune

“Sizzurp” — an intoxicating concoction of codeine cough syrup, soda and candy — is mostly associated with rappers who sing about it, offer recipes on social media and have sometimes suffered its negative medical consequences.

But now the drug cocktail, also known as “lean” and “purple drank,” has developed another, unlikely association — with Morton Grove.

The middle class, predominantly white suburb north of Chicago would seem to have little to do with the phenomenon whose origins are generally credited to the Southern rap scene but whose cultural impact has spread far beyond.

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Yet Morton Grove is home to a pharmaceutical company of the same name. And since another drug maker announced last year it was pulling its codeine cough syrup from the market — reportedly because of the way its recreational use had been glamorized — Morton Grove Pharmaceuticals has become arguably the best-known supplier of sizzurp’s active ingredients.

Search the hashtag “mortongrove” on Instagram, for example, and images of purple liquids in plastic cups and cough syrup bottles compete for attention with postings from the public library and other local businesses and groups. Variations on the theme include “mortongrovepharma,” “mortongrovepurple” and “mortongrovepharmaceuticals” hashtags.

Village Administrator Pro Tem Tom Friel called the odd association between the village and the drug cocktail “unfortunate.”

“I know we all agree we do not condone the use of illegal drugs,” he said. “If we had our druthers, we wouldn’t have it associated with our 24,000 residents that live here.”

A parade of rappers have spotlighted sizzurp.

Perhaps most predominant among them is Lil Wayne, who in a 2011 public service video said he was “sick” for doing the drug but has sung its praises before and since, including in 2012’s “Turn on the Lights,” when he raps, “I’m purple drank forever.”

The brew inspired a slowed-down style of music known as “chopped and screwed” that has been employed by many Top 40 hit makers. The ex-drug-dealing character Cookie drank sizzurp in a recent episode of the popular TV show “Empire.”

But sizzurp also has been suspected or a known contributor to several rappers’ health crises or deaths: DJ Screw died in 2000 of an overdose ascribed to cough syrup and other substances.

Pimp C’s 2007 death was attributed in part to codeine cough syrup. Lil Wayne has been hospitalized because of seizures, though it’s unclear if “drinkin’ that syrup,” as he raps on “Lock & Load,” contributed.

The syrup that forms the main ingredient in sizzurp — typically mixed with fruit soda and often a piece of Jolly Rancher candy to make it more palatable — is promethazine with codeine. Ostensibly a treatment for upper respiratory problems, promethazine is an antihistamine with allergy-fighting and sedative properties, while codeine is a painkiller.

Compared to other opiates like heroin, morphine and hydrocodone, sizzurp is a relatively minor threat.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that codeine was the cause for about 11,000 emergency room visits in 2011, the most recent year available, while hydrocodone and oxycodone were responsible for 97,000 and 175,000 visits, respectively.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office, meanwhile, recorded only one death over the last three years that involved an ingredient used in the syrup (promethazine).

Dan Bigg of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, an organization that distributes clean needles and overdose medication to drug users, said codeine has not been much of an issue on the streets.

“We don’t see it too much,” he said. “Given the opiates that exist, codeine is on the weaker end of things.”

But Sally Thoren of Gateway Services in Chicago, which runs a residential treatment center for teen boys, said the drug has grown popular among her clientele over the last two years. Known locally as “lean,” it is used by a bit less than half of those who come to the center, she said, though it tends to be more of an occasional party drug than a full-time addiction.

“It came out of nowhere,” she said. “It’s having its moment, and whether that’s because it’s unusual, it’s purple or it’s accessible, I don’t know.”

Paul Hokemeyer, a family therapist who said he’s treated opiate dependency, called promethazine-codeine “incredibly powerful. … It makes people feel detached from reality, like they’re inside a cocoon of bliss. That’s the same place that people who use heroin speak of coming from.”

Yet sizzurp is technically legal as long as the cough syrup was obtained through a legitimate prescription. This is where policing the drug’s online footprint gets murky.

On Instagram and other platforms, many people simply share photos of their purple cocktails, but some openly inquire about how to get promethazine-codeine cough syrup while others tout their ability to procure the drug.

A representative of Walgreen Co., the Deerfield-based drugstore giant, said its stores employ a number of safeguards to minimize the chances of customers obtaining cough syrup for recreational use. Though some of the online images show syrup bottles with labels from a Walgreens or other pharmacies, the company said the “biggest risk” is from people who obtain unused cough syrup from a friend or relative who obtained it through legal means.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says it’s aware that “social media is often used by drug traffickers who deal in codeine and promethazine along with many of types of illegal drugs,” and that strategies to combat the illegal distribution of drugs online are constantly evolving.

An Instagram spokesman said the social media company prohibits the use of its website to buy or sell prescription or illegal drugs or to promote recreational drug use.

But the presence of thousands of sizzurp images on Instagram — many hashtagged with the words “Morton Grove” — suggest such policies are difficult to enforce.

Neither Morton Grove Pharmaceuticals, nor its parent company Wockhardt USA, responded to multiple requests for comment.

Morton Grove Pharmaceuticals is touted on its website as a “leading manufacturer and marketer of oral liquid and topical pharmaceuticals.”

Before it was purchased in 2007 by Wockhardt, the company was owned by GTCR, the private equity firm whose former lead partner is Bruce Rauner, now Illinois’ governor.

Whatever the difficulties of policing the use of sizzurp, both on the streets and online, Friel, the Morton Grove village administrator, said the community will continue to put forth a positive image.

“We rely on people to be their own filters with the image of the community as it’s presented on social media websites,” he said.

Lindsey Compton is a freelance reporter.

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