MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Purple drank has being quietly growing in popularity the last decade. Now it has reached the NFL.
JaMarcus Russell was arrested for possession of codeine syrup, a key ingredient in purple drank. The concoction: typically codeine and the antihistamine promethazine mixed with Sprite or 7Up and Jolly Ranchers or other hard candy.
Former NFL player Marcellus Wiley doesn't believe consumption is widespread within the league, "but obviously I think it's picking up some steam."
"It doesn't have the negative connotation it should, the same negative connotation there is with crack cocaine or heroin," said Wiley, an ESPN analyst. "People think of this purple drank as kind of a cool thing. Because people think it's cool, it invades that mentality, invades that culture, without alerting people to the dangers of it."
Dr. Ronald Peters knows purple drank -- also called sip-sip, syrup or lean -- is hardly limited to the cultures of hip-hop or pro sports.
He remembers a decade or so ago visiting inner-city schools in Houston, where teachers were wondering why kids were so drowsy or what were they doing passing around purplish liquid-filled Sprite bottles one sip at a time.
"They kept talking about codeine-promethazine," said Peters, an associate professor at the University of Texas Health Service Center in Houston. "You would go to schools and literally kids were falling asleep. I spoke to teachers and they asked why are kids falling asleep in the classroom? Why are eight people drinking from one Sprite bottle?"
Purple drank made its way from that youthful urban setting to the sports headlines with Monday's arrest of Russell at his home in Mobile. The unemployed former Oakland Raiders quarterback and 2007 No. 1 overall draft pick, released from the team in May, was charged with possession of a controlled substance, codeine syrup.
Russell's attorney, Donald Briskman, said the ex-LSU star will plead not guilty at his arraignment on July 20.
Codeine syrup has landed several NFL players in trouble.
The late San Diego Chargers safety Terrence Kiel, a teammate of Wiley's, pleaded guilty in 2007 to felony and misdemeanor drug charges for shipping prescription cough syrup to Texas. Kiel died in a car crash in July 2008.
Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Johnny Jolly is scheduled to go to trial at the end of this month after his July 2008 arrest outside a club allegedly for illegally possessing at least 200 grams of codeine. If convicted, Jolly faces up to 20 years in prison.
Wiley said the codeine issue crept onto his radar when his teammate Kiel was arrested.
"Before that, it was more relegated to the entertainment world," he said. "I had heard that in the South especially some of the rappers mentioned syrup, purple drank. It was kind of part of that subculture, but it never invaded the locker room, it never invaded pro athletics, until the Terrence Kiel incident."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said codeine is among the banned substances the league tests for and said he didn't know if there had been any codeine-related suspensions.
"We do not see evidence of a particular problem among NFL players beyond what we see in normal society," Aiello said.
Purple drank's origin is generally regarded as the Houston rap scene, where it has been trumpeted in such songs as Three 6 Mafia's 2000 hit, "Sippin' on some Syrup."
It has had tragic effects, too.
Texas rapper Pimp C's 2007 death was attributed to the combination of codeine and promethazine, an antihistamine medication, with the sleep disorder apnea. DJ Screw, a popular Houston disc jockey, died of a heart attack in 2000 after a reported overdose of codeine-laced cough syrup. Rapper Big Moe, whose albums included "City of Syrup" and "Purple World", died in 2007 of a heart attack.
Grammy-winning rapper Lil Wayne of New Orleans has mentioned purple drank in his songs, including one entitled "Me and My Drank" where he references both Pimp C and Big Moe.
The drug is nothing new to the Mobile area, where Russell starred at Williamson High School. In fact, it has become increasingly prevalent over the last decade.
Dave Peacock, an assistant district attorney in Mobile County, said there were no codeine-related arrests in 2000, and three the following year. In the last five years, there have been an average of more than 56 annually.
There have been 31 so far in 2010, Peacock said.
He said the drug goes for about $350 a pint. It carries a strong odor, has a syrupy thickness and a purple tint.
The cost of the drug has increased along with its popularity. Peters says the cost has nearly tripled from about $125 a pint four or five years ago.
"Because of that it's not as accessible to kids," he said. "But it is accessible to people who have resources and money and it's still one of the most popular drugs on the streets."
The high price also has made it something of a "status symbol" and "sort of the drug of choice for people who can afford the so-called better drugs," he said.
He compares it to the popularity of powder cocaine in the 1970s and 80s.
The risks include overdose, liver damage, trying to drive while drowsy from the drug and "syrup comas," Peters said.
Peters said what makes purple drank unique is the combination of the opiate (codeine), the depressant (alcohol) and the antihistamine. He said it has become a common sight in some areas, like drinking alcohol in a bar.
"If you see someone out on the street with a 2-ounce cup of codeine-promethazine, they're not looked at as being maladjusted, they're looked at as normal," Peters said.