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Down on the Pharm
Photo: Gavin Renwick
Pharming—raiding the family medicine cabinet for drugs that get you high—is growing quickly. Many teens have been experimenting with nonprescription potions. One in 11 teens—have abused over-the-counter drugs. The most abused remedy is cough medicine, although motion-sickness medicine and decongestants are also popular.

Cough medicines containing dextromethorphan (DXM) are the current rage. Found in cough suppressants, DXM is sold in tablets, gel caps, lozenges, and syrups. Take a large enough dose and you start hallucinating. Some taste like candy, so users nickname them skittles, tuss, red devils, or triple-Cs. Users say they are “robotripping” or “skittling.”

While seeing things sounds harmless—and may be fun—DXM dreams come with unwelcome guests. Doses high enough to get you tripping can also cause seizures, heart palpitations, and blackouts. They can also make it impossible to sleep, and do nasty things to your body. Some users said they began urinating blood.

Dramamine is also popular with teens seeking a high. Used properly, it prevents motion sickness. Like DXM, it causes hallucinations at high doses. Users seek a “dream” state in which you see, hear, and feel wonderful things. Often, you instead see, hear, and feel weird things. One user reported that after taking a handful of Dramamine tablets, he spent most of the night feeling like he was just about to throw up, and never quite getting there. He got all of the nausea of a trip over choppy water without leaving home.

Diet pills are also abused. Many contain ephedra, a drug whose active ingredient is ephedrine, a decongestant. Ephedra is a natural product, traditionally used in China to treat asthma. It increases both blood pressure and body temperature, which increases a user’s chance of overheating or having a stroke. Since it is a stimulant, some teens use ephedra as a substitute for amphetamines. Ephedra is risky at recommended doses, but when taken by the handful to get an “uppers” rush, your chances of overheating or bursting a blood vessel skyrocket.

Then, there are decongestants. Like ephedra, the active ingredient of many over-the-counter decongestants is ephedrine. Some teens use decongestants as a “poor-man’s amphetamine,” gobbling them down by the handful. Others use the pills to make their own amphetamine, using a process that changes it from over-the-counter, legal, ephedrine into the controlled substance amphetamine.

The effects of over-the counter drugs are increased when mixed with other drugs. Some teens mix different over-the-counter drugs, creating drug “cocktails.” Randomly mixing depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens can produce effects that range from nauseating to deadly. A heart that is getting instructions to both slow down (depressants) and speed up (stimulants) may decide to pack it up instead.

Too High to Recognize Danger

In other cases, users put themselves in dangerous situations because they are too high to recognize the danger. One 14-year-old walked across a divided highway while robotripping, ignoring the speeding cars on it. One car hit and killed him. Others become killers. Delusions, paranoia, and violent behavior are all effects of robotripping. A Pennsylvania teen beat his younger brother to death with a hammer while on DXM. Other users turn their violence inward, killing themselves.

Why do teens use over-the-counter drugs despite the risks and lousy highs? The price is right. A bottle of cough medicine is cheaper than a hit of an illegal drug like cocaine or heroin. The products are legal—and available. Neighborhoods often have a place where you can buy illegal drugs, but they may be hard for teens to get to—or too risky. All of the over-the-counter drugs that are popularly abused are at the neighborhood pharmacy or supermarket—and most are at the corner convenience store.

Finally, many think that if a drug needs no prescription, it is absolutely safe. Not so. While over-the-counter medicines are safe taken as directed, all can be dangerous in large enough doses. Even acetaminophen—Tylenol is one brand—can cause liver failure if taken in large enough doses, especially when combined with alcohol. Trying to get rid of a hangover by gobbling handfuls of acetaminophen tablets is a great way to end up needing a liver transplant. Better to prevent hangovers by avoiding drinking.

Pharming the folk’s medicine cabinet may seem like a good way to get a cheap high. It is cheap only in the sense that cheap means shoddy or shabby. It can cost you our health, your youth, your sanity, or if you are unlucky enough, your life.

The best highs are those earned through your efforts—whether it is the endorphin high of exercise, or the sense of accomplishment you get from hobbies. Over-the-counter drugs are useful for what they are intended to do—stopping a cough when you have a cold, or clearing your stuffy nose. Stick to recommended does. Being involved in a hobby, sport, or activity beats dosing yourself with something from down on the pharm—every time.

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Written by Mark N Lardas, copyright 2006, Mark N. Lardas, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Listen, September 2006. Copyright © 2006 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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