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America’s new street drug comes over-the-counter

“Robo-tripping came out of nowhere … law enforcement hadn’t heard about it, but all the kids had,” claims Drug Enforcement Administration special agent David Jacobson.

Dextromethorphan (DXM) abuse is the newest epidemic to sweep the nation. This social concern strikes a more sensitive chord than other issues because of the subjects involved: children. Recreational DXM abuse has been linked to adolescents as young as 12 years old, according to USA Today.

The Council on Scientific Affairs defines DXM as a narcotic that eases coughs by elevating the threshold for coughing and which, when ingested in large quantities, alters sensory perception and causes severe mind-body dissociation.

The Food and Drug Administration, in cooperation with the DEA, is spearheading efforts to control the situation. Unfortunately, they are up against an enemy that they have created and distributed with virtually no regulation – our generation’s newest “street” drug is sold not on the streets but over the counter at local drug stores.

The drug, traditionally an ingredient in cough syrup, affects abusers for a period of six to eight hours, during which other cough syrup ingredients, including pseudoephedrine and acetominophen, may cause side effects such as blood pressure spikes and liver damage.

During that high – commonly referred to as robo-tripping – subjects experience a distortion of reality and are at a much higher risk of self-injury and suicide. Long-term abuse has been shown to cause decreased respiration, cerebral hemorrhaging, stroke and permanent brain damage, as well as fatal respiratory failure.

Policy decisions and government intervention have consistently remained one step behind in the struggle to control DXM abuse. Though abuse has been apparent for the past three decades, the FDA has had no reason to impose stringent regulation, in part because of the isolation of cases, as well as the general safety of appropriate use.

Consequently, abuse has exploded in recent years. In some cases, abusers have been reported to ingest approximately 100 times the recommended dose. The FDA Advisory Committee on Drug Abuse is recommending intervention at the community and educational levels.

Cough syrup and pill abuse is a growing trend. Such drugs have developed a following in the club scene and are often taken in combination with alcohol, marijuana and other substances to curb side effects or enhance psychoactive effects.

Characteristic “mini-outbreaks” of DXM abuse are evidence of its status as a cult phenomenon. DXM abuse cases tend to multiply rapidly in isolated environments, such as middle and high schools, and usually spread by word of mouth. As overdose stories circulate, students become susceptible to the pressures of deviant curiosity.

DXM is one of the first serious drug whose popularity has grown significantly thanks to the Internet. Though the net has linked other subcultures of drug abuse, DXM abusers have the advantage of receiving instructions on how to get high from Web sites.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America reports that 10 percent, roughly two million individuals, of the nation’s teenagers have experimented with DXM. There is a source of false security that may play a critical role in such a shocking figure: the belief that substances cannot be harmful if they are legal, much less over-the-counter.

A similar cough remedy was developed around the turn of the last century by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer. Customers were overwhelmingly impressed, agreeing that the drug worked to alleviate symptoms without any serious side effects. That drug was called heroin.

Mohammed Ibrahim is a senior majoring in pre-med biology.