Lean On Me: Emoji Death Threats and Instagram's Codeine KingpinBy Fletcher Babb
Additional reporting by Eric Sundermann and Drew Millard
Illustration by Simon Greiner
As I write this, a drug dealer wants me dead. It might be spelled out in Emoji, but a death threat’s a death threat.
There is an Atlanta-based drug dealer who is convinced I ripped him off for at least a few pints of Actavis-brand prescription cough syrup—a potent mixture of codeine and promethazine. You and I know it as “lean” or “drank.”
I’ve never consumed lean. I’ve never met this dealer. I’ve never even been to Atlanta.
This entire “encounter” took place on Instagram, where hundreds of accounts are selling lean, weed, and a variety of prescription pills in a virtual open-air drug market. Many of these accounts aren’t even private.
Remember Silk Road? That mysterious, deep-web drug market? (Which, by the way, was recently shut down and seized by the United States government) It’s kind of like that, but on the same iPhone app that you use to take a photo of your brunch. The same app that Facebook bought for a billion dollars, or roughly 2.85 million pints of Actavis, the leading lean brand.
They sell it, often overnight it, and you can text them your order.
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Lean, Oil, Mud, Texas Tea, Dirty Sprite, Drank, Sizzurp—the archetypal Styrofoam cup filled with purple liquid you’re picturing is a cocktail of promethazine and codeine, mixed with Sprite, and garnished with a Jolly Rancher. Lean is often touted by rappers and, like hip-hop itself, it took off in an isolated area (Houston) and propagated itself outwardly. H-Town luminaries like DJ Screw and UGK’s Pimp C championed the stuff—and they also died from overdoses.
And, recently, everything is purple. Houston-based rapper Fat Tony—who claims to never drink lean himself—says, “[Lean] has a long history of being associated with rap music because of DJ Screw and Houston music, but now, it's so popular now because every rap song mentions lean.” The 25-year-old continues, “Look at the top 20 tapes on like livemixtapes and I guarantee that every one of them has several lean mentions, whether it's a Lil Wayne tape, a Jeremih tape, a Chief Keef tape, a Migos tape, a Rich Homie Quan tape, a Kevin Gates tape, an A$AP tape, or TDE artists like Schoolboy Q or Ab-Soul—even Odd Future artists like Mellowhype. It's more popular in rap music than I've ever seen it before.”
But rappers aren’t just rapping about it; they’re also publicly opening up regarding their troubles with it. Gucci Mane recently went off on Twitter after experiencing hospitalization and arrest.
“I just wanna man up right now and take this time to apologize to my family, friends, the industry and most of all my fans,” the 33-year-old tweeted. “I'm sorry! I've been drinking lean for 10+ years and I must admit it has destroyed me. I wanna be the first rapper to admit I'm addicted to lean and that shit ain't no joke. I can barely remember all the things I've done and said...I'm currently incarcerated but I will be going to rehab because I need help.”
Clinically speaking, promethazine is an antihistamine, not unlike Benadryl. It’s often used as a sedative or to treat nausea, migraine or powerful allergic reactions. It makes you really sleepy and dissociated quickly, and magnifies the already intense effects of codeine. You can cool off in a swimming pool, or you can sit in air conditioning. But if you walk dripping wet into an ice-cold house, the feeling is magnified a thousand times over. You get the picture.
But for recreational use, like a Tom Collins, the ingredients and measurements can vary case by case, so we will speak in general terms.
Codeine is derived from the opium poppy seed, the same plant that’s been used and abused for thousands of years. Like heroin, morphine, and oxycodone, codeine is an opiate. They are addictive and have a penchant for killing or otherwise ruining young musicians. “Texas lean isn't just a rap thing,” Tony says. “My mom is 51 and she's been seeing people sip lean her whole life. Her grandfather and his friends sipped lean back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. As soon as that medication came out, people started to drink it. From any kind of jazz artist to blues artist to club goer, it's for the same kind of artist who would do heroin.”
But like other drugs, musicians point to it as an aid with creativity.
“I just go to the studio,” says Baton Rouge-based rapper Kevin Gates, 27, in excerpts of an unpublished interview from earlier this year obtained by Noisey. “I like pineapple Sunkist. I don't drink cold drinks for the flavor, I just want whatever tastes good with promethazine in it. I drink syrup. I do drugs excessively, because I deal with depression. I don't bother nobody—I don't let my depression bother other people. I just do drugs and record. I started drinking syrup when I was 14.”
Obviously, he’s not the only one.
“A lot of the music I made on lean was slowed down,” says Mac Miller, 21, who recently spoke publicly about quitting the drug due to addiction. “It put me out of the fast-paced industry, and allowed me to put a stop to everything I was doing. It put me in some weird emotional places. I'm not saying it was positive or negative. Macadellic has a lot of monotone delivery since it makes you numb and makes you lack emotion.”
Mondre M.A.N., who’s 22, of Oakland-based hip-hop duo Main Attrakionz—who’ve released a series of mixtapes consistently referencing purple imagery—explains what it’s like to consume lean: “Alright, so if you been sippin’, if you really been sippin’ this shit, and you ain’t had none for like a day or a two or three, your stomach gonna start hurting. You're gonna want some more lean. It's like heroin. Liquid heroin, man.”
"I think people definitely understand how bad it is," says Ty Dolla $ign, 28, whose most recent mixtape Beach House 2 touches explicitly on lean culture, specifically with the track "Still Sippin'." "People just don't really give a shit. It tastes so good and makes you feel so good it's like, fuck it. It's like cigarettes. Everybody knows cigarettes are terrible but they still smoke and shit."
Long-term effects include a shift in endorphins, and, of course, the possibility of death.
“Okay, so man, I wake up,” Mondre says. “I probably already have a cup in the refrigerator. You sip it and you're gonna feel it hit your stomach, you feel me? The thing though, the shit gonna keep you calm, keep you cool. But if you got a busy day though or your girlfriend is in your ear or you got problems or some shit, you gonna get really mad real fast man. You're gonna start flashing and shit.”
When alcohol is mixed with opiates, the effect is further intensified. Breathing becomes shallow. The body doesn’t take in enough oxygen. “They say don't drink it with no liquor but you know I do that shit too,” Mondre says. “Once I put the lean away man, I start sippin' some liquor and shit and that liquor intensify the lean and shit you know and then you really want to go to sleep.”
The three most prevalent brands are Actavis, Hi-Tech, and Qualitest. If Actavis is Moët, Qualitest and Hi-Tech are more like André.
“If you go to your doctor, they might give you some Hi-Tech; that's the red kind,” Mondre says. “Not too many doctors gonna prescribe you with that purple [Actavis] no more. You gotta find that in the streets.”
But in 2013, finding something “in the streets” might require nothing more than turning on your iPhone. Pusha T, the 36 year old rapper whose built a career on music fueled with drug-dealing references—and whose former manager Anthony "Geezy" Gonzalez was sentenced to 32 years in prison for drug-trafficking in April 2009—candidly (and obviously) advises against being public with illegal activity.
"I'm sure once it hits the fan, those involved will be very sorry that they used Instagram," he says. "I personally know that federal agents look at Instagrams, they look at Twitters. They use those things to specifically track you. They watch your viral videos. My video for “Exodus 23:1” was shown throughout the federal system. It was taken to a prison, and [officials] set it up, and they had prisoners watch the video and say, 'Look, we know this. We know that. We know he's responsible for such and such and so and so.' So, I wouldn't do that, guys."
Prices for the drug vary wildly on the street and on Instagram. The rates run anywhere from $250 to $400. Fat Tony says a pint can easily run $1,000 in Houston. Mondre says the last price he saw was $200 in Oakland. Ty$ says he's seen pints go for $1200 in Atlanta. A pint can last up to a week.
“Sip carefully,” notes Mondre.
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Last week, I was sitting naked on my bed, just out of the shower when a friend texted me, “Fletch. Why did [redacted] call you a ‘hoe ass nigga?’”
I opened Instagram to a bunch of alerts, realizing I’d been tagged several times by a lean dealer I'd been dumb enough to wantonly interact with.
His most recent post was a screencap of my profile, which at the time was foolishly unprotected and riddled with location specifics. His caption read: “HOE ASS NIGGAS RIGHT HERE (x-eyed emoji, gun emoji)...dude and his boys took the money off the green dot before they got the pints bc I told them when it touch down ill take the money off then...that's y yal hoes didn't wanna use PayPal #Bitch ass niggas”
The next comment was my username repeated over and over. The third read, “Send da bread, I’ll take it down.”
The only problem was that there was nothing to send. My last and only contact with him took place more than three months earlier. Our entire communication had been maybe twenty words, none of which were my name, location, or even my intent. I hadn’t bought anything and never planned to. Who was he confusing me with? How much money did he think I owed him? How serious was he?
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Let's back up for a second. I first came across this dealer in the comments underneath a photo posted by Juicy J. His comment—which has since been deleted—ostensibly was a standing offer to Juicy J for a few pints of Actavis on the house.
Anyway, at that time, I decided to tap my phone’s screen and saw that his account was private. The bio read:
Good Drank I AM THE REAL PLUG TEXT ME [phone number redacted]...350 A PINT...2 FOR 600...WE ✈OVERNIGHT IT!...NO BROKE BOYS!
I called bullshit and immediately requested to follow him. He accepted within a few minutes, and I was in.
Holy shit, I thought. This dude sells a lot of lean.
On his profile, I found dozens of photos documenting every step of the operation: Styrofoam cups full of purple liquid; bottles labeled "Actavis Prometh with Codeine"—sometimes one, sometimes three dozen; USPS boxes loaded with bottles; a stack of printed shipping labels; minor league rappers dropping by the stash spot to personally pick up a few pints and pose for a few photos. And then he also displays the fruits of his labor—cash, watches, shoes, designer bags, pump-action shotguns, Benz and BMW keys, and a line of bootleg t-shirts with the Actavis logo emblazoned on the front. On the back? The words “LEAN ON ME.”
Flipping through a couple of photos, it became apparent that he was not only a drug dealer, but also well-known in the southern rap community. He's pictured with Kevin Gates on a regular basis, and even Rich Homie Quan drops by. Gates and Quan boast more than 80 million YouTube views between them, or roughly the populations of New York, California, and Texas combined.
Yet there this guy was, selling lean on Instagram, providing a phone number listed in his bio like the White Pages.
Rich Homie Quan on the left
Kevin Gates on the right
The comment sections below his photos on Instagram are littered with interested buyers and, later, satisfied testimonials. From reading comments and captions, I learned that he:
1. Lives in Atlanta, Georgia
2. Ships via USPS, but sometimes FedEx
3. Provides tracking numbers
4. Seems cool with shipping to Canada
5. Will also sell empty bottles in case you want to sell watered-down product.
All of this seemed too public to be true, so I texted the number provided—because, why not? The listed area code was located in central Iowa, so it was likely a burner phone.
At 2:45 one morning, I texted him, “Ay bro I’m in VA.” Two minutes later, he replied, “OK we’ll chop it up tmrw fam.”
It’s a date.
I followed up the next day to see if he was serious. Sure enough, the offer stood: One pint for $350 or two for $500, which is $100 less than he quoted in his bio.
“I just PayPal you and send an address?” I messaged.
He replied: “Hit me up in a week or so with PayPal bro. I'm already trying to get this chargeback disputed. I’m only fuckin wit green dot right now til that's over.” I didn't respond.
Green Dot is a pre-paid debit card system that uses smartphones and a unique 14-digit code. Like Xerox or Kleenex, Green Dot is the generonym for quick, anonymous, cashless transactions. It can be bought in any 7-11 and isn’t backed by a bank account or line of credit. Once you have a code, you can add money to your account in a number of ways that are effectively untraceable. A recent investigation in the Baltimore City Jail revealed that one inmate cleared $16,000 in a month using Green Dot. While incarcerated.
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Thankfully, our lean-dealing friend has since deleted this particular account, and the threat with it—dealers tend to frequently switch usernames to avoid detection. If you need to find a dealer, however, there's always the hashtags. Just by skipping around ones like #leanteam, #dirtysprite, #pourup, et al., I found an ever-expanding galaxy of these accounts. I’ve browsed no less than 200 different accounts. I’ve just passed over many more, as they tend to get repetitive. Some are clearly fakes, but even more are real, and of the ones that are real, many are not even hidden from public view.
From this dizzying array of accounts, I found one in particular that grabbed my attention. This guy stood out for two reasons. First, he's disarmingly handsome (check his abs in the photo below) and incredibly social. Unlike most of the other dealers, he is constantly surrounded by stunning women and equally handsome dudes. He lacks all of the deadpan menace you typically see, instead seeming more like a bro on a perpetual Spring Break.
The second reason is that he revealed his connects.
Photos of cardboard boxes. Tons of them. All filled with prometh-codeine bottles, dozen after dozen, and authenticated with a date and his username.
But the boxes are more interesting than the contents: bottles in sealed boxes bearing the labels of manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, and even plastic bottle makers.
Some boxes come from Morton Grove Pharmaceuticals, a small Illinois-based company that manufactures generic drugs. Others come from Tri State Distrubution, a company that makes the bottles. Others bear the logo of McKesson, a wholesale pharma distributor and the 14th largest company in the United States. Still others are from Rexam PLC, a British packaging company with 70 plants in 25 countries across five continents.
Repeated calls from Noisey to Morton Grove and its parent company, Wockhardt Limited, went unanswered. Calling Morton Grove’s main number rings and rings, ultimately dumping off into a voicemail box labeled “general.”
In July of this year, Morton Grove’s parent company, Wockhardt Ltd., received a public warning letter from the FDA, which found that, among other infractions:
“Your firm failed to prepare batch production and control records for each batch of drug product that include documentation of the accomplishment of each significant step in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of the batch."
The FDA also found “significant violations of current good manufacturing practice regulations for finished pharmaceuticals,” and “documented that your firm withheld truthful information, and delayed and limited the [FDA] inspection.”
I can only describe my interactions with Tri State Distribution as bizarre. Their website directs all business to a 1-800 number. Since I am not a customer, the automated system told me to press “0,” which led me to the sales department. On my first attempt, a sales rep told me that she’s not allowed to forward my calls to anyone else within the company. Instead, she had instructions to direct all inquiries to a P.O. box.
“Isn’t that a little odd?” I asked. She chuckled and said yes, pausing for a moment. “But if you hang on just a moment, I’ll give you the number for Human Resources. They’ve left for the day, but you can try them in the morning.”
When I called the number the next morning, I realized it was the number for the Home Shopping Network.
My other calls to Tri State went in a similar way—another chatty and cheerful rep put me on hold, only to return to the line sounding quiet and curt. She told me, “I don’t know where anyone is. Nobody here can help you.” Then she hung up.
Repeated calls from Noisey to the president of Tri State, Joe Miceli, went unreturned.
Jonathan Thornton, communications director at Rexam PLC, wrote that [sic] “I can only presume that the wholesale theft to which you refer would have taken place further down the supply chain, ie after they have been filled. Rexam only supplies empty containers. The containers are then usually filled by our customers or their contract filler at their locations. We do not supply filled containers.”
Calls and emails from Noisey to McKesson went unanswered.
These companies may be unwilling to talk, but the pictures don’t lie. Case after case of this stuff is getting ripped off and resold. These aren’t phony prescription pads or half-used bottles stolen from mom’s medicine cabinet. Promethazine-codeine syrup is leaking. It’s getting everywhere.
Fletcher Babb is a freelance writer.
If you have any tips on how promethazine-codeine is moving from pharmaceutical companies to the black market, please email us.
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