Common names for street drugs abound as there are a variety of reasons for why people choose to refer to drugs by names other than the ones given to them by science or the pharmaceutical industry. People assign street names to drugs in order to:
- Serve as a shorthand for pharma names, such as calling OxyContin “oxy”
- Subvert law enforcement, such as the case with names like “Molly” and “Lucy”
- Hide drug habits from parents and teachers
- Reflect generational and socioeconomic divides, such as the difference between calling Ecstasy “X” vs. calling it “MDMA”
- Provide marketing and branding for hard drugs, such as the tendency of heroin dealers to make up new names for their products like “Black Death”
- Avoid cultural taboos
- Playoff cultural taboos to create social cachet
Some names are also highly inadvertent, such as the propensity of some folks to call OxyContin “oxycotton.” This is simply a case of not knowing the precise spelling or pronunciation.
Regardless of how drug street names emerge, knowing all of them presents a major challenge. Even individuals with substance use disorders often struggle to keep up with new names. For medical professionals, parents, police, and others, it’s important to learn some of the patterns these names follow. Drug users should also try to know common names because this information may be important to know when reporting an overdose. These are some street drugs, their common names, and some of the patterns that accompany them.
According to the U.S. government, more than 20 million Americans will have used marijuana in the last month. While there’s a tendency to dismiss marijuana usage as habit-forming but not addictive, medical emergencies from its use have risen in recent years. This is due to the growing engineering of both legal and illegal strains. In fact, nearly 456,000 marijuana-connected emergency calls were reported in 2011.
Given that marijuana has been cultivated since at least 500 B.C., it’s not too surprising to learn that the drug is known by a slew of street names. This pattern increased with the illegalization of the drug in many developed countries during the 20th century. Marijuana street drug names typically follow one of four naming conventions.
The first group of names is those that reference the green and leafy nature of the plant itself. These include:
The second class of marijuana street drug names references religious experiences or Jamaican drug subculture. A culturally perceived relationship between Rastafarianism, Jamaica, and the marijuana subculture may play a role in this. Some examples are:
- Herb pronounced with a strong “H” sound to indicate a Jamaican accent
The third group of names includes ones that reference smoke or coughing. This is due to the typical delivery method of the drug because marijuana is usually smoked or inhaled in some form. In this group, common names include:
- Purple haze
- Blunt, referring to the short cigarette that’s smoked
- Spliff, also a reference to the marijuana cigarette
Finally, there are names that refer to the seeming grossness of how sticky the marijuana plant and its buds are. The most common of these is “sticky icky,” including the high compliment “stickiest of the icky.”
“Mary Jane” is also sometimes used, but it’s largely considered too obvious to parents, teachers, and police. “Reefer” is sometimes employed, but it’s often used ironically or to imply that someone is a square who doesn’t understand the subculture. This is particularly due to the unintended comedy that many users get out of the 1930s anti-pot film titled “Reefer Madness,” which portrayed the drug in terms that are seen as lurid and unrealistic.
Opiates, Opioids, and Painkillers
The recent heroin epidemic in the United States has created a situation in which there is an increasing overlap in consumption habits between people who use opiates, opioids, and painkillers both legally and illegally. Many consumers may become addicted through a legitimate version of the prescription process, such as getting hooked when prescribed hydrocodone following the removal of wisdom teeth. It is estimated that 18 million Americans have misused painkillers in the last year. A further 948,000 are believed to have used the street drug heroin in the same time period.
Especially disturbing about this class of drugs is that many street-level dealers are selling products that are intentionally laced with stronger opioids. In particular, the rise of Chinese-produced, laboratory-grade fentanyl is deeply concerning to medical professionals and law enforcement.
One dire consequence of this trend is that it’s difficult to be sure exactly what drugs a person has used based on the common street names. Even long-term users with habits struggle to identify the difference between straight heroin and stuff that has been laced. For these reasons, when hearing about any of the terms for opiates and opioids, it is wise to assume the worst.
Production of opium, the plant from which all opiates are created, appears to date back to at least 3400 B.C. The plant is a difficult one to grow, and naming practices surrounding it often refer to places where the drug comes from or where it was popularized. Other names play off the correct perception that the drug can be deadly. Some others are based on the physical appearance of the drug since different colors often reflect its origin.
Place-based names frequently invoke the stereotype of the ancient Orient as a place where opium was heavily produced and used. These include:
- China white
- Chinese red
- Chasing the dragon, a mythical symbol of China
- China girl
- The purple dragon, also sometimes styled as “chasing the purple dragon”
- Mexican brown or black tar, referring to a specific product that comes from Mexico
Some other color-based names include:
- Brown sugar
- White horse
- Black pearl
- Black Eagle
- Brown crystal
- Black tape
Death-related names tend to be broadly used by street-level dealers to brand their products. These are too numerous to list them all, but they include names like:
- Bin Laden
There are also names that are based on the delivery method of the drug or just its name. For example, heroin is often just called “H” or “Lady H.” It’s also sometimes referred to as “smack,” an apparent reference to the need to smack a vein a few times to get it to pop up prior to injecting the drug.
Street drug names for non-heroin opiates and opioids frequently do not fully distinguish them from heroin itself. When they do, they typically follow two patterns. The first is simply shorthand, such as the tendency to call codeine “Cody.” The second is a characterization of its users, such as calling OxyContin “hillbilly heroin.”
What a drug is mixed with when used is also a common naming convention. In particular, “purple drank” is a form of OTC or prescription codeine in liquid form that’s consumed with either alcohol or soda pop. It’s also sometimes called “syrup” or “sizzurp,” both references to its syrupy form out of the bottle.
References to common names for cocaine are often thrown around in two very different contexts. Foremost, it is seen as a party drug. Secondarily, though, it is utilized by some users of opiates, opioids, and sedatives to pull themselves out of the lows those drugs can produce. Hearing common names for cocaine in conjunction with heroin names should be a source of concern.
Party drug names for cocaine tend to reflect its delivery method of snorting up the nose or its white and powdery appearance. Most heroin users follow the same party drug name conventions when they use cocaine. These include:
- Nose candy
- Angel dust
When cocaine is mixed with heroin, that is commonly called a speedball. Cocaine delivered in solid form is usually considered a type of crack. Crack cocaine is often called “rock” cocaine.
Notably, cocaine in powdered form is sometimes mixed up with ketamine. Ketamine is a drug that has a similar appearance to cocaine, and it also is frequently used in the same way in party circles, although it has a nearly opposite effect to cocaine’s stimulative high.
Increasingly popular with students, tech professionals, and long-haul truck drivers, stimulants tend to fall into two groups. There are amphetamines and methylphenidates. Popularization has occurred due to the use of the amphetamines Adderall and Dexedrine as attention-deficit medications, and there has been a similar growth in the use of the methylphenidate Ritalin.
The amphetamines are often known by names like:
- Truck drivers
- Meth, a reference to the lower-grade street drug version known as methamphetamine
- Black beauties
- Speed, but this is sometimes considered old-timey
Methylphenidates have names like:
- Vitamin R, a reference to Ritalin
- Smart drug
Many of these names reference the feeling of a racing heart that occurs while on them. Some also reference the emotional lift that comes with using them.
Sedatives, Anesthetics, Date Rape Drugs, and Depressants
While many people think of most drugs as pick-me-ups, people do consume substances that can depress them or even knock them out. Especially worrying is that some extreme anesthetics, sedatives, and depressants are employed in sexual assaults and rapes.
Ketamine is an anesthetic that is only legal in the U.S. for use on animals. Its common names include:
- Special K
- Vitamin K
- Cat valium
- Super C
Rohypnol is a drug that has a strong association with date rapes. In fact, it is sometimes just referred to as the “date rape drug.” The pills are called “roofies,” too, and the term “roofied” has come to be a reference to any attempt at drug-based date rape whether it involved Rohypnol or not. More generally, tranquilizers may be called “tranx,” and that name can yield more confusion when someone is dosed or uses them.
Due to the class of drugs that many sedatives come from, benzodiazepines, drugs like Xanax, Halcion, and Klonopin are often collectively called “bennies” or “benzos.” Older barbiturates are typically called “barbs.” A large number of drug street names for sedatives make reference to the color of the pills that contain them, such as bluebirds,” “strawberries,” and “green dragons.” These vague names can make it challenging to identify a specific drug that was used.
Hallucinogenic drugs tend to have names that are anchored in science or a subculture of mysticism and wellness. LSD, for example, is frequently called:
- Sugar cubes
Hallucinogens derived from plants or mushrooms have names that generally refer to that plant form. Mescaline, for example, is often just called “cactus” or “peyote” in reference to the peyote cactus it is derived from. “Mescal” is also used as a shorthand. Many kinds of mushroom-derived psilocybin drugs are simply referred to as “shrooms” or “magic mushrooms.”
With so many common street names, and with the tendency for these terms to change over time, it can be very challenging to keep up with the different types of drugs and their uses. However, if you think that someone you know may be indulging in one of these substances, there are options for treatment and recovery. Keep an ear out for references to these drugs, and be ready to listen and help if you are needed.