Durham County

‘Legal Lean’ now on sale in Durham, but is it safe?

Legal Lean
Legal Lean cwarrenhicks@heraldsun.com

A “syrup” being sold around the city has some community members concerned.

Legal Lean is packaged in 2 ounce bottles with a label describing it as a “dietary supplement.”

Concern has risen over the drink’s name and its association to an illegal product called Lean.

“The connotation being, this is a safe form of the illegal Lean,” said Wanda Boone, founder of Durham TRY, a community group that combats substance abuse.

“Sippin’ Syrup,” “Purple Drank,” and “Lean” are all street terms for a homemade concoction containing cough syrup that users drink to get a high.

Boone said Legal Lean can “cause young people to just pretend, with this alternative drink, which doesn’t support their healthy maturation.”

Boone often takes high schools students on outings to convenience stores she calls “Sticker Shocks,” in which they stick small circular red stickers on products that are illegal to sell to people under 21.

On a Sticker Shock last week, Boone first learned about Legal Lean.

A couple of days later while teaching a “safe behavior” seminar, Boone asked a group of 110 high school students if they’d ever heard of or consumed any variety of Lean.

“They made a sound signifying that they’d heard about it,” she said.


Legal Lean does not list cough syrup or any opiate as an ingredient.

Its label says the drink contains high fructose corn syrup, natural flavors, vitamin B3, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and multiple sleep aid supplements – all legal.

“It's not a complete sham,” Professor Cynthia Kuhn said Tuesday.

Kuhn is a professor in the Duke University School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology and a coauthor of “Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy.”

Kuhn said Legal Lean has the potential to relax those who drink it, based on papers in peer-reviewed scientific literature suggesting its ingredients of chamomile, Valerian Root, Kava, melatonin and – “and too a lesser extent” – lavender and L-Theanine “could promote sleep.”

Products, like supplements, that only include natural ingredients – “things that exist in nature” – cannot be regulated by the Federal Drug Administration, Kuhn said.

“But the key is, you have no idea how much of each constituent is in this drink,” Kuhn added. “You don't know if there is effective dosage in there, and you don't know if they interact with each other because they haven’t, much, been studied in combination.”

Putting millennials to sleep

Minister Paul Scott, a Durham community activist, held a press conference Monday to raise awareness.

“We’re in an age when millennials are waking up socially and politically, and it’d be a shame to put them back to sleep,” Scott said. “Parents in Durham should be scared.”

“The (illegal) drink is glorified in today’s rap music and has caused the deaths of hip hop artists. Legal Lean is being promoted as having the same effects,” Scott wrote to Mayor Bill Bell. “In a city that is suffering from youth and young adult violence and drug abuse, do you think that this should be sold in Durham?”

Bell wrote Scott back.

“NO I don’t believe the product should be sold in Durham or in any other city for that matter,” Bell wrote, adding he was copying City Attorney Patrick Baker for his advice.

Baker said he’d neither heard of Legal Lean nor any variety of illegal Lean but had contacted and made the Durham Police Department aware of the issues and planned to contacted N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein to discover “who, if anybody, is looking into this, to see if it’s even safe to sell.”

On its website the makers of Legal Lean say it is for those 18 and older.

“LEGAL LEAN uses a special blend of natural ingredients to achieve its relaxing and calming effects,” it says and then lists the ingredients, including “chamomile extract, a daisy-like plant found in teas that is traditionally used as a sleep remedy, and lavender extract, a flower of the mint family with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.”

A promotional video for Legal Lean online depicts a man buying and trying Legal Lean for the first time and “a few hours later,” the man who sampled Legal Lean appears to have blurred visions – as signified through camera effects. The video has been viewed nearly 157,000 times.

“It does something. It gives them a high on the YouTube video,” said Shareef Hameed, a behavior coach and youth mentor in Durham. “In the video within a few hours, the guy wanted more.”

“This could be a gateway to addiction, when kids start topping-off,” he said. “When the effect runs out, they might want something stronger.”

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks