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A Bad Trip That Kills

Abuse of cough remedies can be lethal. A state lawmaker hopes to ban sales to minors.

April 04, 2004|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Some users claim to see aliens conjured from the collective unconscious. Others temporarily lose their ability to walk. Some have written stories on the Internet: "I felt my soul being ripped from my body," and, "Are you a vampire? No, I just met God."

But it's not heroin or PCP they are taking. It's cough syrup.

An underground network of abusers -- hooked on the potent ingredients in cough suppressants and cold remedies -- is thriving in California and across the nation, while police and poison control officials report more and more young people getting high from what they call "robo-tripping" and "skittling."

Abusers have been getting high from cough syrup for five decades, ever since the main ingredient in modern cough medicines -- dextromethorphan -- was patented. But in recent years coroners have issued warnings about the practice and health officials have started tracking statistics on it for the first time as the stories stack up: a teenager commits murder and blames cough tablets; a mother loses her son and finds out too late he was a robo-tripper.

Poison control experts point to a four-fold increase in abuse cases since 2000, mostly among teenagers and young adults who have developed their own lingo for the culture -- robo-tripping refers to the use of Robitussin to achieve a high and skittling is derived from Skittles candy, which resembles some cough tablets.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Cough medicine -- An article about the abuse of cold medications in Sunday's California section described a young man's death from a drug overdose incorrectly by referring to Duragesic, a prescription pain medication, as "a key ingredient of cough syrup." The story should have said the individual had overdosed on two drugs, Duragesic and dextromethorphan. Only the latter is a key ingredient of some cough medicines.

"We're now seeing it in middle schools. We're seeing it at an earlier age," said Det. Wayne Benitez of the Palo Alto Police Department. Authorities need to "make people aware this abuse is going on and that this is not just a passing fad," he said.

The situation is alarming enough to some California officials that legislation has been introduced to prohibit the over-the-counter sale of products containing dextromethorphan to anyone under 18 without a prescription.

No state has outlawed sales of cough medicine to minors so far, even though products containing dextromethorphan -- and incidents of people abusing it -- have been around since the 1950s. But this year, New York and California have started exploring a prohibition for minors. California law already prohibits the sale to minors of spray paint, etching fluid, glue and dietary supplements containing ephedrine.

Health officials estimate that at least a dozen people have died from dextromethorphan abuse in recent years. The statistics are compiled from news reports across the country about accidents, psychotic behavior and violence linked to abuse of the over-the-counter drug.

On July 16, Misty Fetko said, she entered her son's room like she always did -- to kiss him awake and get him ready for the day. But he did not stir. He was dead.

Only after she received an autopsy report and read her son's computer journals did Fetko discover that he had overdosed on highly toxic levels of a prescription pain medication that, to her surprise, was a key ingredient of cough syrup. Except for one empty bottle of Robitussin found in his room the year before, there were never any signs of drug use.

Her son was 18, and on his way to college in just two days. Fetko said she had yet to discover how he came across the pain medication, Duragesic, but his journals indicated that he had tried robo-tripping several times.

"Carl was very artistic and very musically gifted, and I think some of the attraction," suggested in his writings, was that he thought it expanded his artistic ability and his creativity, said Fetko, who lives in Ohio but is working with two Southern California groups on the medication abuse issue.

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 only a strobe light," wrote the Wichita Eagle newspaper. Bell admitted to police that he had taken up to 16 Coricidin cold tablets, which contain dextromethorphan, also known as DXM, as well as beer and cocaine. Felix-Martinez was 22, and died of stab wounds.

In Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old boy killed his only brother by smashing his head with a claw hammer, then turned 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 rare cases, public health officials have reported deaths from DXM overdoses. But they usually have been attributed to mixing DXM products with other drugs. In late 2002, two central Ohio teenagers died within weeks of each other after ingesting Coricidin tablets and morphine. The Franklin County, Ohio, coroner issued a warning to parents saying the deaths "represented a new trend."

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