'Purple drank' becoming popular in sports world

November 14, 2010 9:16:27 PM PST
Houston is known for many things -- the rodeo, humidity and the Medical Center are just a few. But in the world of drugs, the Bayou City is the unofficial home of codeine-promethazine, known on the streets as "purple drank." Codeine abuse has plagued inner city communities for years. But with its steep price tag, "purple drank" now appears to be moving into the sports world.

It was one public appearance Green Bay Packers lineman and Houston native Johnny Jolly never expected to make -- an appearance in a Houston courtroom back in August. He was charged with possession of 200 grams of codeine syrup.

In July, former Oakland Raiders quarterback Jamarcus Russell was arrested in Alabama and charged with felony possession of a controlled substance said to be codeine syrup. In 2008, former San Diego Chargers defensive back Terrence Kiel was arrested for shipping codeine cough syrup to Texas. The Lufkin native later died in a car wreck.

Codeine syrup, or "purple drank" as it's known on the streets, may be becoming more and more of a problem in the NFL.

"Yea, absolutely. There are guys that are doing it, yea," said former NFL player Marcus Coleman.

He should know. Coleman played 10 seasons in the NFL for three different teams, including the Houston Texans. He says "purple drank" may be the NFL's dirty little secret.

"I don't think it's a large number. I think, uh, probably, I'll go with 15 percent," Coleman said.

Codeine-promethazine abuse has roots in Houston. Glamorized by some hip hop artists, "purple drank" is portrayed as the "unofficial potion of choice" in some inner city neighborhoods.

"In certain localities, amongst certain people, it's being as normal as having a beer. But the effects are tremendous," said Dr. Ron Peters, UT Health Assoc. Professor of Behavior Sciences.

In fact, it's been blamed in the deaths of several Houston hip hop stars -- from DJ Screw to Big Moe to Pimp C.

Dr. Peters says it's understandable how athletes can also fall victim.

"They can go the West Coast, East Coast, but when they come home for the summer, you know, they're gonna meet up with their friends. They're gonna go to certain clubs that are gonna have this particular substance," said Dr. Peters.

And he says codeine's elite image can be intoxicating to some.

"This is the champagne and caviar of drugs here in Houston. And for people that are players, they want 'player's potion.' They want to have something that has a cool image," Dr. Peters said.

"It's like a status symbol. I can get this and you can't. And from what I understand, I think a pint is $400," Marcus Coleman said.

It's a high price to pay for a drug that can lead to comas, liver damage and overdose. Its effects on an athlete could be devastating.

"Especially if you're Jolly's size. And knowing that this is something that, you know, affects your respiratory system or people that have asthma problems or things like that; It's something they need to get a hold to before it gets out of control," Coleman said.

John Lucas, who runs a substance abuse recovery program here in Houston, has spent the last few weeks working with Jamarcus Russell.

"I reached out to him. And being with him, I don't see that he has any issues, other than wanting to get back and being very young," Lucas said.

Russell admitted using "purple drank" in an ESPN interview in August. But two weeks ago, felony drug charges were dropped against the former Raiders quarterback. He's since earned a tryout with the Washington Redskins for a possible return to the NFL. Lucas, meanwhile, doesn't believe "purple drank" is a big problem in pro sports -- at least not yet.

"I think that it's isolated instances right now. And you can't play a lot of football doing that. But I understand that the off-season and what you're doing can bring about a problem that can come into the season," said Lucas.

Coleman agrees and says any player who thinks "purple drank" won't hurt them, better think again.

"You can't bring whatever neighborhood you grew up in into your career life. Because eventually it takes over and you get in trouble or you're not as focused as you probably should be and you're not doing your job, which ultimately costs you your job," said Coleman.

Johnny Jolly was given a form of probation that will have the charge against him dismissed in a year if he doesn't break the law and completes community service. He is currently suspended for the 2010 NFL season.


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