NBC News
By Ron Allen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/2/2004 6:29:37 PM ET 2004-01-02T23:29:37

Joel Cahoon, 16-years-old and now in rehab, says his drug problem turned worse the day he ran out of marijuana. That's when a friend suggested stealing cold and cough medication from a grocery store.

“I was a little confused about it at first,” says Cahoon. “I didn't think cough and cold medicine would be able to do anything.”

Coricidin Cough and Cold Tablets, and more specifically their cough suppressant, dextromethorphan, or DXM, became Cahoon's drug of choice. When taken in big doses, DXM can cause hallucinations, heart problems, and for Cahoon, after 32 tablets a day, a feeling like a zombie.

“I'd be so messed up, and so out of it, that I couldn't even talk to anybody,” says Cahoon.

It's called "Dexing", or "Robotripping", when Robitussin cough syrup is used by kids as young as 12, as a mind-altering recreational drug.

Across the country, drug experts say the number of teens abusing over the counter cold medications is on the rise. Why? The ingredient teens seek to get high can be found in over 100 products right in the local pharmacy.

Federal health officials aren't officially tracking the problem yet. Meanwhile, doctors at an emergency room outside of Chicago say they see four to five overdose cases a week -- many of them young people.

“We're just seeing the severe cases,” says Dr. Charles Nozicka of St. Alexius Medical Center.  “There's probably much more illicit use out there.

One big reason, he says, is the Internet. Some Web sites have instructions about how much DMX to take to get high.

“Information on how to abuse it is readily available, and controls on its availability are not what they should be,” says Dr. Nozicka.

Some drugstores are placing cold medication behind the counter. And some manufacturers are making bigger packages which are more difficult to shoplift.

The makers of Robitussin said "the product is not the problem." "Cough syrup is just one of many household products abused by young people."

Coricidin's manufacturers said their product "meets an important medical need." And ..."it is safe and effective when taken as directed."

Cahoon, who's been in and out of rehab a year and a half now, hopes he's finally beaten his addiction.

“I was killing myself, you know,” says Cahoon. “I didn't even think I was trying to commit suicide but I was.”

He was using a product most people take to fight the common cold as a weapon.

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