Not Just for Rappers Anymore: Cough Syrup Swamps Lebanon
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Not Just for Rappers Anymore: Cough Syrup Swamps Lebanon


This post was originally published on May 30, 2014.

When you think of somebody getting high off cough syrup, what do you picture? If you’ve been following the pop music circus, you’re probably picturing Justin Bieber or Lil Wayne, sipping sizzurp (aka “purple drank” or “lean”). If you’ve been hiding under a rock since 2010, sizzurp is prescription-strength cough syrup (because promethazine and codeine) mixed with melted hard candy and soda (because a spoonful of sugar yadda yadda ya). Originating in the southern hip-hop scene—just listen to any Three 6 Mafia track—codeine cough syrup exploded into a nationwide craze over the past few years, with groups as decidedly un-southern and un-hip-hop as Young the Giant devoting entire songs to the toxic concoction. The problem grew so big that syrup manufacturer Actavis actually pulled it off the market without FDA intervention. But the US isn’t the only place cough syrup has taken hold. Apparently it’s also huge in Lebanon.

Some Lebanese Just Can’t Shake That Cold

It seems the youth of Beirut are getting hooked on Cemo, a Syrian version of high-codeine cough syrup. The trend caught fire two years ago among students at Lebanese American University (LAU), the elite private college that houses some of the richest kids in the country. To buy Cemo, which has been banned under Lebanese law, users have to drive to Dahiyeh, a part of town where Hezbollah has seized the roles of police, army and government. The disorder in Syria beginning in 2011 has made it easy for shipments of Cemo to pass into Lebanon disguised as lightbulbs. But the government has continued to crack down in the face of publicity, driving prices skyward—up to $100 per bottle. According to 22-year old Nada, an addict who shared her experience with Vice, that’s enough for about five hours of numbness. “Nothing matters in that moment. It’s just you, your thoughts. All the rest is gone.” No Jolly Ranchers or Sprite in this mix—the Lebanese kids down it straight from the bottle. Hardcore.

After drinking Cemo, users plunge into isolated silence, dead to the world and averse to physical contact—not quite what we picture when we read about Bieber’s party antics. Perhaps the precise pharmacology of Cemo is different from its American counterpart, the sweetened elixir that leaves rappers feeling so fly like a G6. In any case, there’s no doubt guzzling cough syrup poses health dangers. Although Lil Wayne survived his sizzurp-induced seizures last year after six days in the ICU, other hip-hop artists have been less lucky.

Out of Sight and Out of Control

With the black market being driven deeper and deeper underground, no statistics exist on the number of Cemo addicts in Beirut, or whether any syrup-related deaths have occurred there. It took a few months for the liquid to ensnare Nada, who found herself using “every time something was wrong or [she]had nothing to do.” Life’s too short to even care at all—or so says the Young the Giant song that served as the soundtrack to Nada’s first quest for the codeine high. If you drink enough cough syrup, unfortunately, it just might be.

Photo courtesy of TheFameFatale

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.