By Aaron Rowe June 27, 2007
A recent article in the Journal of Emergency Medicine tells the story of a 20-year-old kid from Portland, Oregon that extracted the active ingredient, dextromethorphan, from some cough syrup and tried to get high with it. Thanks to the doctors that treated him, their patient did not earn a Darwin Award. Case reports written by doctors are often far more exciting than an episode of House or any other hospital drama. They tend to include a lot of fun facts.
As a bonus for their readers, the authors included two recipes for the drug that nearly killed their patient. Those recipes came from the infamous Vaults of Erowid website. It is an encyclopedia of sometimes detailed and usually dangerous instructions for making drugs with improvised methods that would make MacGyver cringe.
When a chemist wants to extract something from a complicated mixture, they often use extremely pure solvents and a device called a separatory funnel. Proprietors of the finest meth labs often steal them from college campuses. Without access to these supplies, rogue chemists must resort to using chemicals from the grocery store and kitchen. Combined with a lack of scientific knowledge, the results are what you would expect -- terribly impure drugs that are in no way fit for human consumption.
In the improvised recipe, the drug is extracted from the cough syrup with ammonia and then from the pungent household cleaner with cigarette lighter fluid. When teaching an organic chemistry class, my rather sharp students often had a hard time getting rid of every last bit of the solvents they were working with. Keep in mind that they had all of the proper equipment and adequate instructions. Imagine how much lighter fluid could have been left over in the cocktail that this young pillar of society prepared for himself. In this case, it appeared to be an overdose of the active ingredient that did most of the damage. The doctors commented that some, but not all of his symptoms were in line with a dextromethorphan overdose.
Both the paper and some recent news stories claim that the abuse of dextromethorphan is on the rise. As a regular consumer of organic produce, I fall into the category of individuals that are appalled by the notion of tainting my food with anything that may be remotely toxic. The thought that consuming something that is prepared with ammonia and tainted with lighter fluid and who knows what else could be a popular pastime terrifies me.