As the recent outbreak of IKEA-branded ecstasy pills in the UK reminds us, there is a long history — dating back to the infancy of hallucinogenic drugs — which has relied on symbols, imagery, and brand names to warrant not only trust between dealer and recipient, but also a way of steering away from or towards a specific product based on effects of a trip/reaction.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration echo these sentiments, stating that major distributors package substances with appealing logos in hopes of building brand loyalty, instilling confidence in the product, and ultimately promoting use of the drug as fun and harmless.
Whereas major brands can use the legal system to avoid any brand confusion as it relates to endeavors happening above board, they are completely helpless if would-be dealers decide to co-opt their logo for drug purposes.
Whether it’s automotive, fashion, tech, sport or luxury, most sectors of commerce have been impacted and branded in the world of illegal narcotics.
The usage of “drug branding” for illicit substances has its roots in the experimentation done during the 1960s by early LSD pioneers like Ken Kesey and Owsley Stanley whose own Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test drew it’s name from the well-liked drink of the era.
Stanley himself forged a bond with popular bands like the Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Steely Dan and often provided them with hallucinogenic materials and reportedly “turned out LSD said to be purer and finer than any other.”
Before he died in 2011, he was said to have dished out between 1-5 million doses.
While the sheer volume is astounding, Stanley is credited with being one of the first chemists to give his concoctions memorable names — as well as market said products for specific events which could only be procured by those in attendance.
What followed were LSD “brand names” like “White Lightning” and “Monterey Purple” which subsequently became in high demand. “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendriz was purportedly inspired by the latter batch of acid that Stanley had given to Hendrix at the Monterey Pop music festival in 1967.
No longer did people just want “acid” or “LSD,” they wanted the Coca-Cola or United Airlines of drugs.
Thus began a major shift in drug culture.
As hippiedom gave way to disco fever in the 1970s, so too was there a change in drug usage from pills and tabs to the instant high that intravenous heroin could provide.
According to Ric Curtis, professor and chair of anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, heroin branding is a distinct innovation unique to New York City.
Despite the heavy competition, Frank Lucas’s “Blue Magic” outsold them all.
“That’s because with Blue Magic, you could get 10 percent purity,” Lucas said. “Any other, if you got 5 percent, you were doing good.”
As Slate noted of this trend, “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.”
Simply put, if it was good enough to have a name, and people who were under the influence could still remember it, users reasoned it had to be the best product on the market.
Not surprisingly, other dealers followed Lucas’s lead. Between 1975 and 1982, a researcher cataloged more than 400 names of heroin products in New York City alone.
Dequincey Jynxie, who ran a blog chronicling heroin baggies from the past and present in New York City, noted of the naming trends, “In terms of packaging, the classic stamps are often either drug or danger-related, like ‘Knock-Out,’ or ‘DOA,’ or New York-centric, like ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ or ‘Empire,’ for example. More recently, though, there’s been quite a few more conspicuous urban-culture-related stamps, like ‘Bugatti,’ or ‘Gucci,’ or ‘Cash Money’-stuff like that. ‘Arm & Hammer’ was a weird one. It’s a baking soda toothpaste. I’m not sure why you’d want to associate your heroin with the most cliched cutting agent.”
Whereas the drugs of the past — and current marijuana strains — bared names reflecting potency, color, power and safety — Jynxie’s assessment illustrates the shift to products which mirrored actual companies that exist.
According to The Daily Dot, “Through the 1980s and 1990s, branded heroin—Terminator, Polo, Mortal Kombat, Godzilla, and Tupac—continued to rise. There was even a heroin stamp called TRI-STAR, which featured the logo of the film production studio.”
TRI-STAR wasn’t the only heroin with movie connotations. In the 1990s, users could get also their hands on “New Jack City” and “Tango and Cash” which were names of popular films during this time.
“Addicts are just as much part of the consumer culture swayed by branding and product placement as those who buy iPhones, gym membership or the latest Lycra whatever,” says Graham MacIndoe, author of All In: Buying Into The Drug Trade. “But heroin is the ultimate product because you really have to come back again and again.”
In recent years, LeBron James-branded heroin (with a silhouette of him dunking a basketball) and “Obamacare” heroin were respectively seized in Philadelphia in 2012 and Hatfield, Massachusetts in 2014.
In 2014, Denver police were actually able to eliminate a heroin drug ring selling “Los Castores” based on the name recognition alone.
“The group had what amounted to ‘brand’ recognition in the heroin distribution business,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Till. “There are business advantages to such brand recognition in the heroin distribution business. The down side, from a heroin trafficker point of view, is that brand recognition is likely to attract law enforcement’s attention.”
This naming tradition would later be immortalized in the series, The Wire, where they boasted heroin options named for real people like boxer Mike Tyson, NBA player Rasheed Wallace, baseball players Cal Ripken and Sammy Sosa, and Donald Trump (Trump Towers).
The foundation for the naming of current MDMA pills is a reference to heroin culture.
Much in the same way that British police are currently concerned over the IKEA-branded ecstasy pills floating around Jersey in the United Kingdom, there was similar “brand name” outbreak in 2016.
A 17-year-old girl died in Manchester in 2016 after ingesting a pink pill with a “MasterCard” logo on it which contained PMA — a highly toxic MDMA substitute that acts like an antidepressant — which can lead to extreme side-effects.
DI Helen Bell from the police force’s Trafford division said, “We are appealing to anyone who may have taken this form of ecstasy, known as ‘MasterCard’, to get checked out urgently. Even if you took it some hours ago, this pill will still be in your system and could be seriously harming your health.”
Other known MDMA pills with brand names include Ferrari, Mitsubishi, Nike, Rolex, Mercedes, Armani, Snapchat, Volkswagen, Chanel, Calvin Klein, Audi and Tesla — that latter which sprung up and had German drug research group, Safer Party, finding that they it contained more than 230 milligrams of MDMA — whereas the “average” pill usually is about 80-120 milligrams.
The notorious Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel has turned to branding for their billion-dollar cocaine empire — regularly marking holidays by showcasing Santa Claus on baggies during Christmas as well as utilizing symbols for both The Rolling Stones and Superman.
In 2014, Peruvian officials seized kilos of cocaine belonging to the Tijuana Cartel with branded logos with a lion, polo player and LV which referenced clothing entities Express, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton.
According to Borderland Beat, “These stamps can indicate quality, ensuring the cocaine is coming from a source country, or major wholesaler, refer to ownership, or be used for logistical purposes, in terms of where the particular load is going.”
Similarly, Ecuadorian police seized 949 kilos from Mexico’s Familia Michoacana which had the symbols of Volvo, BMW and Toyota as seals of identification.
Would-be drug opportunists in Rio during the Summer Olympics also continued this trend by peddling cocaine in Olympic packaging complete with linked rings and the Rio 2016 logo.
In March of this year, Peruvian officials confiscated 1,417 kilos of cocaine that were packaged with images of Lionel Messi and his FC Barcelona club.
While the IKEA-themed ecstasy warning may seem like a modern problem, there is clearly an established track record which outlines a sense of dealers wanting to create brand trust with users.
As Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas says in American Gangster, “Brand names mean something. Consumers rely on them to know what they’re getting. They know the company isn’t going to try to fool them with an inferior product. They buy a Ford, they know they’re gonna get a Ford. Not a fuckin’ Datsun. Blue Magic is a brand name; as much a brand name as Pepsi. I own it. I stand behind it. I guarantee it and people know that even if they don’t know me any more than they know the chairman of General Foods.”