With all the talk about upcoming psychedelic legalizations, and the beginnings of the medical psychedelics market, it’s easy to forget that some psychedelics are already legal. For years now, people have been robo-tripping off cough syrup, (or at least taking the medication), making it the most commonly used psychedelic in America, and an OTC one at that!
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What is robo-tripping?
You might be familiar with this term, or you might not be. The word ‘robo-tripping’ is based on the name Robitussin, a brand name cold and flu cough syrup, which contains a special ingredient. This ingredient can also be found in Nyquil, and is associated strongly with both of these brand names, among others.
The drug in question is DXM, or dextromethorphan. DXM has been legal in the US since 1958, so while the government was running smear campaigns about LSD and magic mushrooms, it was simultaneously pushing the use of DXM in over-the-counter (OTC) medications, without using the term ‘psychedelic’. Though there may be some confusion over where exactly DXM fits in, most consider it under the general umbrella of psychedelics.
DXM is, in fact, a member of the morphinan class of drugs, which also comprises drugs like codeine and morphine. Morphinans are generally naturally occurring (like the two just mentioned), but as exemplified by DXM, can be synthetic as well. DXM does not have the same effect on receptors as other morphinans, and is not related to pain relief in the same way. In high does, DXM acts as a dissociative hallucinogen. At lower doses, it has sedative, dissociative, and stimulant properties, while also bringing on feelings of euphoria and general well-being. I know this from my own experience.
What does DXM from cough syrup feel like?
As stated, at regular doses, DXM has sedative, dissociative, and stimulant properties. It makes a person feel high and good, even at standard doses, and can go on to cause more extreme dissociation, and hallucinations in higher does. On the other hand, in testing, DXM and psilocybin (of magic mushrooms) were found to produce similar effects, with the biggest difference being that psilocybin causes more extreme hallucinations and mystical experiences.
In my personal experience, I found cough syrup to be the best part of being sick. I mean, no one wants to be sick, but whenever I was, I knew I could jump on the Nyquil train (my preferred brand name DXM remedy). These days I don’t take pharmaceuticals except if necessary, so I stay off the Nyquil train for the most part, but still hop back on at times when I need a sick-time pick-me-up.
It always made me feel great. I never took it above recommended doses, and if I did, it wasn’t by much. I did go as far as buying just the cough syrup to avoid unnecessary acetaminophen (Tylenol) use. If I take it today, it’s strictly without the acetaminophen. DXM has always been a sick-time oasis for me. That one thing that can be taken at a miserable time, to make a badly feeling body, feel a little better. And all the while reaping the benefits of a cough suppressant.
I expect at higher doses I would’ve been more out-of-it, but even with the standard dose, I always felt euphoric, but in a kind of not-totally-there way. I don’t remember experiencing any negative side effects over years of intermittent sick-time use. It should be remembered though, that when a person is ‘robo-tripping’ on cough syrup, they often consume an entire bottle, or more. I’ve never done this.
Where did DXM come from?
Since it’s synthetic, we know it wasn’t found out in the wild, or as part of an existing plant. Which means we know that at some point, someone created DXM in a lab. The parent compound was first described in a patent application by Hoffmann-La Roche in 1946. The patent was granted in 1950. The parent compound underwent testing and was mentioned in published literature in 1952, DXM was first tested in 1954.
Who did this testing? None other than the US Navy and CIA, on research into non-addictive options instead of codeine. It gained approval from the US’s FDA in 1958 as an antitussive – or cough suppressant. While opioids like codeine are generally associated with pain management, such compounds can also serve as cough suppressants. In the 1960’s and 70’s, DXM really took off in the States with the brand Romilar selling it for this purpose. The brand was discontinued in 1973 because of misuse of the medication.
A few years after this (showing the government was actually totally cool with it), new brands emerged like Robitussin and Vicks-44. When the internet emerged in the 1990’s, it allowed for the quick spreading of information, which led to discussions about use and how to get it. By the mid-90’s, wholesale DXM powder could be ordered online, thereby bypassing the need to take a product with other ingredients.
In September of 2010, the FDA shot down an initiative to make DXM prescription, once again showing that the government was cool with people using, and abusing, this psychedelic. Though DXM is federally legal as an OTC medication, some states like California and Oregon have instituted regulation to bar sales to minors.
How does DXM work?
DXM has several mechanisms of action including being a nonselective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and a sigma-1 receptor agonist. In terms of its function as a cough suppressant, DXM works differently than opioids. Whereas opioids produce an antitussive effect by way of opioid receptors (though how and why is not necessarily understood), DXM actually tricks your brain into not feeling the need to cough. This is because the airways and lungs have tons of nerves attached, and these nerves can detect fluid in the lungs, other irritants, respiratory constriction, and mucous build-up.
DXM works by being a communication disruptor between the brain and the nerves which are responsible for the coughing reflex. It creates a temporary block of this information, so that the brain never receives the signal from the body that it should cough. When enough receptors are blocked, a person no longer feels the need to cough, even if they technically should. For this reason, DXM (much like opioids) is not advised for anything other than a dry cough, as it can stop a person from coughing up fluid from their lungs, which can cause other issues.
Though DXM was supposedly meant to keep prospective chronic coughers from getting addicted to opiates, it ended up being used recreationally, much like opiates. In fact, the term robo-tripping was coined in reference to the high that legal cough syrup can provide users, whether in the correct dosages, or by taking more than the recommended amount.
Psychedelic legality in the US
DXM is strange because it gets treated fundamentally differently than every other psychedelic out there. While everything from LSD to MDMA to psilocybin is a Schedule I Controlled Substance, DXM just slid right through, not just to legality, but to OTC legality. The only other pharmaceuticals that have any legalization status, are ketamine and esketamine.
While ketamine has been cleared for use as an anesthetic, it can’t be used or prescribed for anything else. So while it’s not Schedule I, it’s also not accessible legally for anything but anesthesia. Ketamine remains big as an illicit party drug. It’s close cousin esketamine was cleared for medical use with treatment-resistant depression, for which it received authorization by the FDA in 2019. This authorization was updated in 2020 to cover suicidal thoughts as well. This requires a doctor’s prescription, however, making it significantly less accessible than DXM to the average person.
Esketamine does show a new trend arising. The treatment of psychological issues by way of psychedelics over monoamine antidepressants, and this trend looks to be picking up and continuing. Both MDMA and psilocybin have received ‘breakthrough therapy’ designations by the FDA for PTSD and severe depression respectively, for which both are undergoing trials. This means a US federal government agency is pushing for the research and development of compounds with Schedule I listings. And this indicates that laws could be changing very soon.
Robo-tripping from cough syrup is the most common way to experience psychedelics legally in the US. That is, unless you live in a place like Oregon, which has decriminalized their recreational use, and legalized medical use for some compounds like psilocybin.
The idea of DXM certainly stands out as inconsistent when it comes to regulation for psychedelics. Though its nice to know that not everything is banned, there’s a certain strange aspect to the idea that DXM is so openly sold, while comparable compounds are kept off limits. I guess no one says much about it because DXM isn’t advertised as a psychedelic, and the connection is not made by the masses. It truly is astonishing how brilliant well-orchestrated marketing campaigns can be.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.