LeBron James heroin: Do illegal drugs usually have brand names?

Why Do Drug Dealers Brand Their Heroin?

Why Do Drug Dealers Brand Their Heroin?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 2 2012 3:58 PM

Do Illicit Drugs Usually Have Brand Names?

A mini-Explainer on “LeBron James” heroin.

Pre-war Bayer heroin bottle, originally containing 5 grams of Heroin substance.
Pre-war Bayer heroin bottle, originally containing 5 grams of Heroin substance

Photograph by Leridant/Wikimedia Commons.

A Philadelphia drug dealer has been arrested for selling packets of heroin, which were stamped with a picture of a basketball player and the brand name “LeBron James.” Do illicit drugs usually carry brand names?

Heroin does. It’s difficult to comparison-shop for heroin—the street dealers are always changing, the transactions are furtive and fleeting, and you can’t judge a packet’s purity with a moment’s glance. In the 1970s, a few enterprising producers began stamping their wares with brand names as a marketing trick. The stamp was supposed to be an assurance of purity and consistency, making it possible to charge a premium and attract repeat customers. Most of the early brands suggested a hyper-pure product, with names like “death wish,” “kiss of death,” “suicide,” or “DOA.” (An overdose was the best advertisement a brand could have: If a product was strong enough to kill, it was assumed to be pure and capable of providing a powerful high.) Brand names became more vague over time, including “top shelf” and “magic,” and makers eventually started using the names of popular films or celebrities. “New Jack City” heroin, and even “Tango and Cash” heroin, were briefly popular in the 1990s.

Heroin branding is more common in the eastern United States, possibly because the “Mexican brown” heroin popular out West is difficult to adulterate. The number of heroin brands in East Coast cities is staggering. Between 1975 and 1982, a researcher cataloged more than 400 names in New York City alone.

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Heroin brands tend to be short-lived. Since there’s no trademark protection for illicit drugs, copycats are common, and the repeat customer effect wears out after a few months. Many producers offer several brands simultaneously to protect against their best brands losing street credibility.

Heroin brands are different from the many names of marijuana that are on the market. Monikers like Culiacan or Citral typically denote a strain of the marijuana plant or the locale in which it was grown.

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Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.