There is an entire world behind the production and distribution of drugs. Whether they’re drugs that are exchanged under cover of darkness or stolen from a medicine cabinet at home, the language that people use to talk about drugs can tell us many stories: where the drugs come from, how they’re made, and how they’re presented in such a way that their consumption is made to sound fun, harmless, or even like it’s a good idea. The origins of drug and alcohol slang terms shed a little light on what is otherwise a very dark and secretive world.
- Black eagle
- Black tar
- Black pearl
- Brown crystal
- Brown tape
- Brown sugar
- Brown rhine
- Chinese red
- Chinese white
- Chasing the dragon
Take heroin, for example. For each year between 2009 and 2011, an estimated 607,000 people used heroin. Despite its well-publicized dangers, heroin remains an incredibly popular illegal drug among users, even though its injectable form looks like a slimy, dark-colored semi-solid. That appearance may explain some of its names such as black tar, black pearl and brown sugar.
Some of heroin’s slang terms derive from the supposed location of origin. It is sometimes known as “Chinese red” or “China white,” due to the long history of heroin and opium in China. The latex in opium (which is itself picked in neighboring Burma and other nearby countries) contains 12 percent of the alkaloid morphine, which is chemically processed to create heroin. The heroin is often moved through southern China, where it is then sent out internationally.
On the other hand, some of the more obscure names for heroin require a little imagination. “Smack” sounds like a typical street name for a drug, but the Online Etymology Dictionary explains that there’s a bit of history behind this slang term. In the days before the chemistry of liquefying heroin for intravenous use, the drug had to be inhaled or sniffed. The Yiddish word for sniff is “schmeck,” which became “smack” in American English slang. And even though the primary method of heroin consumption today is injecting it into the user’s veins, the antiquated nickname stuck.
The idea of sniffing heroin also explains one of the drug’s more fanciful names: “chasing the dragon.” As a way of gauging the strength of heroin before converting it into a more potent (and final) form, or under the belief that inhaling heroin is a safer alternative to injecting it, some users try to inhale the still-runny substance before it congeals into a semi-solid mass (“chasing”). The word “dragon” originates from Chinese culture and lore, from where this practice originates, and the idea of pursuing an elusive and mythical goal, like trying to score an even better high that never comes.
Despite the relatively shorter exposure, especially when compared to intravenous administration, “chasing the dragon” carries its own risks, causing fatal brain damage in 20 percent of cases.
- Fat sack
The popularity of the television show Breaking Bad cast a spotlight on the production, distribution, and language of crystal methamphetamine. “Meth” is a natural (and obvious) starting point, a simple shortening of the word “methamphetamine.” “Shard,” on the other hand, refers to the “shard-like crystals” of the penultimate stage of the final product, which are then ground up into a powdered form for snorting. Similarly, “glass” is a code word for that form of the drug, where the more transparent the shards (like glass), the higher the purity of the meth. For that reason, crystal meth is also known as “ice.” The clearer the ice (or the glass), the stronger and more dangerous the meth is.
In terms of distribution, an amount in excess of a gram would be a “fat sack,” while “teenager” has come to mean a small amount of meth (usually a sixteenth of an ounce, possibly derived from the phrase “sweet sixteen”).
- Nose candy
In the early 1980s, cocaine enjoyed such popularity – fueled in part by the well-intentioned War on Drugs – that demand for the drug far exceeded the supply. Drug manufacturers resorted to producing a cheaper alternative to cocaine, one people could easily buy due to its low price and lower purity. Household baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) was used to strip cocaine of its purity.
During production, the cocaine was heated, and the resultant cracking sound gave birth to a new scourge and a new name: crack cocaine.
Confusingly, the line between cocaine and crack cocaine has become blurred enough that “crack” is also used as a slang term for cocaine itself.
Cocaine and crack cocaine are also colloquially known by a variety of names that draw from the white, powdery appearance of the drug, like “snow,” “chalk,” “flake,” and “sugar,” among many others. Another common name, and one that is used for a number of other drugs, is “nose candy” (from the mode of administration, namely snorting).
Other forms of cocaine, like freebased cocaine (which has its impurities stripped by heating it with ether) has led to the use of the shortcut “base” as a slang term. Similarly, “baseballing” has come to mean taking a hit of freebase cocaine.
- Marry Jane
- Sticky icky
As one of the most popular and accessible drugs in the world, marijuana comes with its own lexicon. A number of casual synonyms may sound familiar: “weed,” “blunt,” “joint,” and “pot” rank among the most common terms. Slate magazine explains that the use of the word “weed” in connection with marijuana first originated from the 1930s as the term for a “marijuana cigarette.” Today, we would use the word “joint” to refer to a marijuana cigarette (from the French word joindre, meaning “joined,” perhaps referencing the hybrid of a cigarette and marijuana).
A blunt, on the other hand, is often a hollowed-out cigar (not a cigarette) that is filled with marijuana. The term is derived from a particular size of Phillies cigars (although a blunt in the context of smoking marijuana does not need to be of the Phillies brand).
As for “pot,” the origin has nothing to do with the kitchen implement. The Spanish language gives us “potiguaya,” from potación de guaya, a wine or brandy in which buds of the marijuana plant were soaked, to extract their flavor. The English translation of “potación de guaya” is “the drink of grief.”
- Sooby Doo
The drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine – MDMA for short – has already come to be better known by the name “Ecstasy.” Ecstasy is called an empathogen, meaning that people who take it believe they feel a sense of togetherness, connectedness, closeness, and openness with others. They also experience intense sensations of euphoria, which goes some way into explaining why MDMA has come to be known as Ecstasy (or the derivative terms “E,” “X,” or “XTC”), especially in the rave and nightclub scene. In the United Kingdom, the “M” in MDMA has given rise to the name “Mandy” as a code word for Ecstasy; the American equivalent is “Molly.”
One of the many slang terms for Ecstasy is “Skittles,” possibly due to both substances sharing very colorful appearances (which is the same reason that “beans” has also become a colloquial reference to MDMA pills). Albeit a regional variant, the term “Scooby Snacks” is also used to talk about Ecstasy, perhaps drawing from the popular conception that the Scooby Doo cartoon series had a marijuana subtext.
The failure of the 18th Amendment firmly cemented alcohol, and its myriad slang terms, into the American consciousness.
“Booze” is so intertwined with alcohol that its original meaning hasn’t fallen far from the tree: the Middle English “bouse” simply means “to drink a lot.” As for “hooch,” it was a word used to refer to cheap, illegal whiskey from the days of Prohibition, when ordinary citizens had to resort to distilling alcohol in their own bathtubs in order to have a drink. The name “hooch” itself is derived from the Hoochinoo tribe of Alaska, whose whiskey proved popular with gold miners. Today, “hooch” is most used when alcohol bottles are hidden in paper bags to circumvent laws against drinking in public.
The idea of illegally producing alcohol was very popular in the days of Prohibition, which gave rise to the term “moonshine” to describe alcohol that was made in secret – or “by the shine of the moon.” Even after Prohibition was lifted, many people still enjoyed the thrill of an illicit alcohol market, free from government regulation of its safety or taxation of its proceeds. A handful of states and alcohol companies have adopted the idea of selling and marketing sanitized “moonshine” as a way to boost their coffers and economies, to the point where “moonshine” no longer refers exclusively to clandestinely produced alcohol, but simply to any high-proof distilled spirit.
- Red Devils
- Georgia Home Boy
- Grievous Bodily Harm
- Liquid Ecstasy
- Liquid E
- Liquid X
For as dangerous as all these drugs are, the biggest substance abuse problem in America is not cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy, or even marijuana. The ubiquity and ease of access of prescription drugs have made them the newest chemical epidemic in America. A professor of psychiatry and the director of the addiction psychiatry residency program at the University of Washington told WebMD that “vastly more” people use prescription drugs than did two decades ago, with 20 percent of Americans aged 12 and over (48 million in people) having misused a prescription medication at least once.
Unsurprisingly, the illicit consumption of prescription drugs has spawned its own glossary. For example, Dextromethorphan is an over-the-counter anti-cough medicine that becomes hallucinogenic after 900 milligrams. As a result, it is known by names such as “DM,” “Drex,” and “Tussin” (from “antitussive,” a drug used to ease the symptoms of a cough, of which Dextromethorphan is one). It is also known as “Velvet” and “Red Devils” because of the drug’s striking red hue.
Similarly, gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (better known as GHB) is a popular medication for the treatment of insomnia, clinical depression, and narcolepsy, which has led to it being usurped by drug users looking for an easy way to get their hands on a potent depressant. In such circles, the “GHB” initials stand for “Georgia Home Boy” and “Grievous Bodily Harm,” while its liquid administration has given rise to such terms as “Liquid Ecstasy,” “Liquid E,” and “Liquid X.”
OxyContin and Vicodin are more painkillers that are popularly abused, either by people desperate to find relief from their physical stress or by users looking for a depressant. While the slang terms for some drugs are bizarre and have no conceivable relation to the name of the drug, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that the slang terms for OxyContin and Vicodin are not as imaginative: “Oxy” and “Cotton” for the former, “Vikes” and “Vikings” for the latter. Even Percocet is often merely rendered “Percs,” although the simplicity in the slang terms should not take away from the powerful and destructive effects of these drugs if they are abused, either recreationally or unwittingly.
 “Slang, Jargon and Nicknames for Crystal Meth / Methamphetamine.” (n.d.) KCI The Anti-Meth Site. Accessed January 27, 2015.
 “Study: Marijuana Is Most Popular Illegal Drug Worldwide.” (August 2013). CBS News. Accessed January 24, 2015.
 “How Weed Became the Hippest Slang Term for Marijuana.” (March 2014). Slate. Accessed January 24, 2015.
 “Recent Marijuana Blunt Smoking Impacts Carbon Monoxide as a Measure of Adolescent Tobacco Abstinence.” (2005). Substance Abuse & Misuse. Accessed January 24, 2015.
 “Pot? Why Marijuana is Called the Same Thing We Cook Soup In.” (July 2010). Dictionary.com. Accessed January 25, 2014.
 “Slang Words Used for Ecstasy.” (n.d.) Your Dictionary. Accessed January 25, 2015.
 “Get Drunk the Liberty-Loving Way With “Freedom Moonshine”.” (April 2014). Reason. Accessed January 26, 2015.
 “Prescription Drug Abuse: Who Gets Addicted and Why?” (n.d.) WebMD. Accessed January 26, 2015.