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Greg Frary got a maintenance man to let him into his son Jonathan’s college apartment in September, 2002. His son was to graduate in just two months. But instead, what he found was his son lying dead on the floor. The father also found a glass of orange juice and a vial of Dextromethorphan (DMX). Then, there were the tape recordings containing hours of descriptions of his son (who had never dabbled in any other drugs, and who was a midwestern, small-town all-American boy) and a friend taking DXM while entering hallucinogenic states.


This Dateline special (see included the following narrative with students, who were all recovering DXM addicts in a special Minnesota school, Sobriety High. The students said “they chased the DMX high until they nearly died from overdoses or attempted suicide. They say they heard about it from friends, that it takes a bottle of liquid or eight pills to get high.”


Edie Magnus: “One bottle of Robitussin? You just drink it down? All that syrup?


Girl: “I’d throw it up. I couldn’t do Robitussin.”


Boy: “That’s why most of us did pills.”


[Not only do cold tablets like Coricidin contain 30 milligrams of dexromethorphan, more than other cold medicines, these teens say it was also the easiest to steal or conceal.]


Nick: “I’d grab a couple of boxes, open them up, depending on if I felt like walking or not, I’d walk through the aisles and throw empty boxes into other containers and just put the sheets in my pocket. So that way, you know, if someone did catch me, they would have no proof that I stole it.”


Edie Magnus: “Did you think you wouldn’t get hurt?”


Nick: “You don’t really think about it…. Toward the end I was taking 60 to 80 pills a day and by then I wasn’t able to speak.”


Edie Magnus: “How come you didn’t die, any of you?”


Nick: “You can grow tolerance really quick. You’ve got to push it up a by a couple of pills a day.”


[So when Nick, who was gobbling up to 80 pills a day, was hospitalized with an overdose, his parents were suddenly faced with losing him to a drug they’d never worried about in their wildest imaginations.]


Janna: “I had gone through his room, and done, under the guise of cleaning it, had done a thorough search. But I was looking for, like, alcohol, marijuana, you know.”


Edie Magnus: “The drugs you know.”


Janna: “Yeah, I wasn’t looking for cold medicine.”


You can go online, as kids do, and find a whole subculture of DXM abusers who will offer suggestions for new highs, recipes for cough syrup brownies and Coricidin cocktails. It seems as if this is how Jonathan Frary found a place to order the pure DXM that killed him.


Dr. Shannon Miller is a military psychiatrist specializing in the abuse of dextramethorphan among teenagers and older. He has seen dehydration, seizures, liver problems, and cardiac arrest in those who have ingested large amounts of cough and cold medicines. He also knows that DXM, just like PCP, has caused addiction in animals.


Dr. Miller: “It can be very dangerous.”


Edie Magnus: “Isn’t there a certain element of common sense about this? Like no kidding, if you take too much you’re going to have an adverse outcome?”


Dr. Miller: “Sure, but something happens in the machinery of the brain to cause you to want to exceed that dose over and over and over again….. Users (need to be) aware that this is more than a trip… there are medical risks that include addiction risks….).


The National Institute for Drug Abuse has been aware of this rising danger of abuse since the late 1990s. From its Director’s Report (Sep. 2000) under Other Drugs: “Cough medicines with DXM are commonly abused (“Robo tripping”) by teens in Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul where DXM is reportedly also available as a powder in clear capsules.”


A USA Today article by H. Darr Beiser ( is entitled, “Youths risk death in latest drug abuse trend,” and begins: “Emergency rooms and schools across the nation are reporting that waves of youths are overdosing on non-prescription cough and cold medicines that are widely available in drugstores and supermarkets.” It further notes that DXM is found in 120 non-prescription cough and cold medicines, that at least five deaths in 2002 and 2003 were due to such abuse, and that many more lives were saved by medical intervention.


It gives these nicknames for DXM: Robo, Skittles, Triple C’s, Rojo, Dex, Tussin, Vitamin D. “DXM abuse is called ‘Robotripping’ or ‘Tussing.’ Users might be called ‘syrup heads’ or ‘robotards.’”


DXM from Robitussin, Coricidin, or in its own pure form, not only can damage the body, become addictive, and kill, it can also stir up feelings and hallucinations leading to violence, even murder. Robert Salladay, writer for the LA Times described (in “A Bad Trip That Kills,” 4 April 2004) two such incidents.


In September, 19-year-old Nathaniel Bell was convicted of first-degree murder for stabbing Jose Felix-Martinez “amid a blaze of drugs in an apartment illuminated by a strobe light,” wrote the Witchita Eagle newspaper. Bell admitted to police that he had taken up to 16 Coricidin cold tablets, which contain dextomethorphan, also known as DXM, as well as beer and cocain. Felix-Martinez was 22, and died of stab wounds.


In Pennsylvania, a 14-year-od boy killed his only brother by smashing his head with a claw hammer, turning up the music in his room to muffle his brother’s cries. The boy had been “eating pills” all day—Coricidin HBP Cough and Cold tablets, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported. The boy was convicted of third-degree murder and is serving a 20- to 40-year sentence.


In addition to instances of violence to others while under the influence of DXM and other drugs, there have been reports of self-violence. Stories have emerged of suicide notes left by young addicts before taking what amounted to a final and fatal overdose.


Coricidin’s mixture of Dextromethorphan and Chlorpheniramine Maleate poses special dangers when used in large doses. Some may ask why these drugs are allowed as over the counter drugs. The opiate drugs are the only other effective cough suppressant, and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) sees these as clearly too dangerous. DXM is judged to be a viable alternative, generally safe when ingested according to instructions.


DXM, a synthetic drug chemically similar to morphine, was approved by the FCA as a cough suppressant in 1954. Since that time there have been scattered reports of its misuse. Only recently, however, has its abuse become a significant addiction among, and fatal threat to, young people.


The Internet has made it easy for people with similar interests to communicate within a virtual subculture. Many have gained their primary information about DXM, along with peer encouragement, from the Internet.




1.     How had you heard of “robotripping” or “tussing?”


2.     With what feelings, or kind of attitude, and with what questions, did you come to this article? How did you respond to this article? What are your criticisms, questions or suggestions?


3.     Would you consider yourself alarmed, concerned, amused or disinterested in the issue described here?  Why so? If either alarmed or concerned, where do you want to take those feelings? What should we do about this issue?


4.     What further questions do you have about this issue? What needs to be in this topic besides this Overview and the Resource List?


5.     What do Robotripping, dust-off or dusting and the passing out or choking game have in common?




1.     Robotripping, dust-off and the passing out game are all ways to get high or alter consciousness; they are activities spreading among young people, who in general do not use illegal drugs or alcohol, who enjoy these unique ways of getting high, and consider their activities legal, easily concealed, risky and fun.


2.     These all promise relief from stress or boredom, and are sometimes self-medication to deal with seemingly intolerable pain or anger. They begin in small groups of friends but can end up as solitary, and therefore much more dangerous, experiences.


3.     We have purposely connected these three currently prevalent activities. But they also need to be connected with smoking, drinking and drug abuse. That is to say, these issues need to be considered in a holistic manner, seeing the fad or phenomenon in terms of the whole life of a teenager within social systems that make up our society. The nature of our consumerist society, the amount of advertising of drugs for every pain, the breakdown of primary relationships, the isolation felt by so many individuals, ways in which reality TV shows and the Internet try to compensate for this isolation with virtual communities and communication—all need to be taken into consideration.


4.     Social and personal strategies to decrease risk and increase the positive assets around the lives of our children and youth must be considered together if we are to prevent needless injury and loss of life and increase the quality of adolescent life styles.


Dean Borgman cCYS