There are many different mind-altering substances in the world. Some of these substances occupy a place in most of our daily lives. For instance, alcohol is legal in most places — at least for people of a minimum age — and even marijuana has been decriminalized in a number a places in the United States. However, there are a number of illegal substances that have continued to poison our society. Working from the inside, these substances have hijacked millions upon millions of Americans’ brains, rendering them unable to make informed, rational choices. In short, they’re beholden to the self-destructive urges that force them to continue using these chemicals daily. But besides the stimulants, depressants, and opiates that have reached epidemic-level proportions, hallucinogens like DXM continue to pose a threat on a national — and even international — level. So what, exactly, is DXM? What are its effects? And is it addictive in the way that alcohol and heroin are addictive?
It’s a substance that you may not be that familiar with, but DXM poses a major risk to all Americans for a couple important reasons. However, we must first take a quick look back at our extended history with hallucinogens before we get into DXM. Believe it or not, humans have been using hallucinogens for at least five thousand years, if not more. In the past, hallucinogens have been used for healing and, more commonly, for spiritual practices and rituals. In the South American Amazon, native peoples have used substances like ayahuasca while tribes in Mexico and even the American Southwest have used peyote as part of religious practices and ‘spirit quests’.
More recently, a number of hallucinogenic substances have been created synthetically in laboratory settings, which was the case for LSD and MDA. In the twentieth century, DXM was created in the hope of developing a substitute for codeine with less of codeine’s addictive properties. The drug is in the morphinan family of substances, which is a group of psychoactive substances that incudes opiate analgesics, cough suppressants, and dissociative hallucinogens, among other types of drugs. DXM — which stands for dextromethorphan — was created from its parent compound, racemorphan, in 1952, which led to a series of tests conducted by U.S. government agencies in 1954 as they searched for the aforementioned codeine analog.
In 1958, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved DXM for use in over-the-counter cough medicines. As had been intended when creating the substance, DXM caused far less of a sedative effect than codeine. Moreover, there was far less potential for opiate dependence with DXM than there had previously been with codeine, which lended to the positive reception — and rapid push to market — of DXM. However, like phencyclidine and ketamine, DXM would inevitably come to be associated with nonmedical use and actual recreational abuse.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, dextromethorphan appeared in a wide variety of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines as well as in a concentrated tablet form. Although the cough medicines were prone to abuse, it was the tablet that triggered an exponential increase in the abuse of DXM, resulting in the medication being taken off shelves in 1973 since rates of abuse had increased so quickly; this left the numerous cough medicines as the only alternative. With the advent of the digital age and internet service in the 1990s, information about DXM was quickly disseminated, resulting in renewed interest in DXM abuse among crowds of recreational drug users and even curious adolescents.
As well, users found that other sources of DXM could be found online, including a powdered form of DXM HBr powder that could be bought online in bulk. By January 1, 2012, California had outlawed the sale of any medications containing DXM to minors unless with a doctor’s prescription. In fact, many states have implemented measures to make over-the-counter drugs containing DXM somewhat less available to those who are underage. For instance, some states require retailers to keep these medicines in a locked area that can only be accessed by a cashier, which allows them to ensure that only those of legal age can buy medicines with DXM in stores.
Compared to other hallucinogens, DXM is quite unique because it evokes both psychoactive and physical effects. Some of the effects that are most often attributed to DXM include intermittent hot flashes and cold chills, loss of coordination and fine motor skills, strong feelings of dissociation, the sensation of having an out-of-body experience, sweating, the feeling that one’s body has become extremely heavy, visual and auditory hallucinations, hyperactivity, slurred speech, euphoria, paranoia, disorientation, strange tactile sensations, rashes and/or red blotchy skin, racing heart, feelings of floating, distortions in perceptions of time, and a number of other comparable effects.
Although it’s not addictive in the same way that alcohol and heroin are addictive, studies indicate that DXM can, in fact, be habit-forming. Specifically, the frequent use of large amounts of DXM can trigger a number of the symptoms that the drug was intended to treat, including insomnia and dysphoria. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about frequent DXM use is that it’s been connected with the development of toxic psychosis; this refers to the possibility that a person who uses large amounts of DXM frequently could experience loss of contact with reality and an overall diminished cognitive state, and these symptoms could either be prolonged or perhaps even permanent to a degree.
In addition to the effects mentioned above, there’s risk that an individual could insure him or herself or others while under the influence of DXM; whether it happens intentionally (due to behaviors induced by hallucinations) or unintentionally, this can be quite a dangerous situation. But there’s been very little research on the long-term effects of habitual DXM use, which should further discourage the drug’s abuse. The fact that a user is venturing into territory that’s largely uncharted could lead to disastrous results.
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