Inside Florida's Codeine Black Market

Long glamorized by Dirty South rap acts, "lean" is increasingly lucrative on the street thanks in part to prescription drug busts.

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Jul 6 2016, 6:30pm

Alleged drug thief and aspiring MC Darrish Martin. Facebook photo courtesy Pembroke Pines Police Department.

Around 4 AM on April 16, three men in hooded sweatshirts approached the entrance to a Walgreens in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Surveillance footage shows one member of the trio—sporting an orange hoodie, tan backpack, and white socks as gloves—pry open a door using a large yellow crowbar, according to an affidavit recently filed in Broward County court.

Once inside, the three men ran to the pharmacy, where they broke a glass case filled with prescription medications. Within two minutes, they left the store with 1,587 painkiller pills and a pint of promethazine codeine, the prescription cough syrup often combined with drinks like Sprite to make the woozy concoction alternately known as "lean," "purple drank," and "sizzurp."

A month later, a multi-agency law enforcement task force caught up with the drugstore bandits after another Walgreens heist in Miami Gardens, roughly eight miles south of Pembroke Pines. Tracking devices had been installed on this batch of promethazine, and minutes after the May 10 burglary, cops pulled over a black Cadillac Escalade and arrested 26-year-old Bryan Pitter and 24-year-old Alonzo Hinson.

Later the same day, the bandits' alleged mastermind and an aspiring rapper, 24-year-old Darrish Martin, was also taken into custody. Upon executing search warrants on the car and Martin's residence, cops found an AK-47, multiple handguns, and roughly 300 rounds of ammunition.

The three men were initially charged with burglary, criminal mischief, grand theft, and oxycodone trafficking in Miami-Dade County criminal court. But last month, a state prosecutor filed a superseding indictment charging them with racketeering, burglary, grand theft, codeine possession, and trafficking several types of painkillers, among other charges. Authorities say the alleged thieves burglarized 46 South Florida pharmacies in an 11-month span, stealing tens of thousands of pain pills and hundreds of milliliters of prescription cough syrup.

The men have pleaded not guilty. But according to the criminal complaint, investigators found photos on Martin's Facebook and Instagram accounts that show him posing with cough syrup bottles still bearing the barcode labels of the stores from which they were stolen.

Long glamorized by Dirty South rap acts like Three 6 Mafia, Lil Wayne, and Future, lean has become a lucrative commodity in American cities with vibrant hip-hop scenes thanks in part to crackdowns on prescription drug "pill mills," according to experts and users. A pint that normally costs between $20 to $50 with a doctor's prescription and medical insurance is fetching $800 to $1,000 on the black market.

"In some areas, it is even more than that," Lisa McElhaney, president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, told VICE. "If there is a minimal supply, the cost is higher. Depending on the type and brand, the price also fluctuates."

In 2013, administrators at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta, Georgia, notified state investigators they suspected technicians of stealing drugs from the pharmacy. The ensuing probe revealed that hospital employees had siphoned 110 gallons of promethazine codeine and 1.2 million doses of the opioid hydrocodone, though no one has done any jail time, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The following year, prosecutors in San Diego, California, won convictions against 18 people involved in a scheme to obtain fraudulent prescriptions for promethazine codeine. More recently, cops in Anaheim made two separate arrests as part of an investigation into the burglaries of more than a half-dozen pharmacies in which thieves targeted prescription cough syrup.

Drug manufacturers have taken steps to curtail prescription cough syrup abuse: Two years ago, Actavis, which made the most popular brand of purple drank, pulled its products off pharmacy shelves. "Actavis has made the bold and unprecedented decision to cease all production and sales of its Promethazine Codeine product," the company said in a statement at the time. "This attention has glamorized the unlawful and dangerous use of the product, which is contrary to its approved indication."

According to a pair of users from Miami, though, the demand for prescription cough syrup in the hip-hop community has only intensified amid government and company crackdowns. Ablescup, a street artist known for his sleepy-eyed graffiti character that resembles a styrofoam cup overflowing with lean, believes promethazine codeine and other types of opiate liquid medicine made by brands such as Caraco, Qualitest, and HiTech are filling the void left by Actavis.

"People will pay up to $3,000 for a bottle of Actavis," he told me. "But they're just paying for the name on the bottle. Anyone selling you a bottle of Actavis, ninety-nine percent of the time, that shit is fake."

Ablescup sustains his habit with a legal prescription that allows him to only pay $21 for a pint, he said. "I'll drink it. But if I am having a bad month, I have people I can sell it to easily for $1,000."

In south Florida and across the United States, lean users and sellers can find one another by searching hashtags that reference lean, purple drank, or dirty Sprite. For instance, a crew of purple drank sippers in the Magic City use the hashtags #Miamileanteam and #Miamislumpboyz, according to a Miami rapper who did not want to be identified.

"Lean is a very niche market," the MC said. "Everybody claims they have it, but only a handful of people like me get it prescribed. Everybody I know on #Miamileanteam gets it prescribed."

The rapper claimed users often inquire about buying lean from him. "We are just sitting around with our meds wondering why everybody is trying to pay so much for this shit," he told VICE. "But at the end of the day, no one buys that shit unless you are a rapper with money because it is so expensive."

Pharmacies seem to be catching on to resellers who try to acquire lean with legal prescriptions, however. "The pharmacist will pop the seal on a branded bottle and pour it into generic cough syrup bottles," Ablescup said. "After the seal is popped, it loses its value completely."

A bottle with a broken seal usually gives hardcore users the impression the actual contents have been diluted or completely replaced with over-the-counter cough syrup like Robutussin. "I've sold a lot of fake lean," Ablescup said. "If you haven't been using it for a while, you can't tell the difference."

Those users who can't obtain the stuff legally will steal it straight from the pharmacy. For her part, McElhaney, the drug diversion investigator, was less than surprised to learn thieves had broken into 46 pharmacies in south Florida. "They have a tendency to get cocky," she said. "If they hit one and get away with it, they do another one and another one. For them, this is a way of making money and being relevant in that aspect of hip-hop culture."

In addition to committing burglaries and robberies, liquid codeine thieves will recruit pharmacy technicians to steal the drug for them. In some cases, they work out deals with employees that work inside warehouses distributing pharmaceutical drugs, according to McElhaney.

"We get rampant reports from warehouses that this is a drug thieves target," she said. "If you live in an area with a heavy hip-hop culture like south Florida, it is very profitable for individuals selling it."

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