Greg and Linda Frary never worried about their son Jon. An outgoing honors student at Illinois State University in Normal, he was less than three months away from earning his degree in psychology when his girlfriend called his family Sept. 24, concerned because she hadn't been able to reach him for a day. Speeding 30 miles from his home in Peoria, Greg entered his son's apartment with the help of a maintenance worker and walked into every parent's nightmare: Jon, 22, lay dead on the floor of the bedroom, a bottle of white powder a few feet away. "I was going to have to bury my child," says Greg, 51. "It was so out of the natural order of life."

The Frarys soon learned the cause of their son's death: Jon had overdosed on dextromethorphan (DXM), an over-the-counter cough suppressant. Although his family never knew him to use drugs, the day after Jon's body was found, a friend revealed that the pair had been buying DXM legally on the Internet for months and experimenting with it for its hallucinogenic properties. The two young men had even exchanged audiotapes describing their visions. "In Jon's mind, because it was legal, it had to be safe," says Greg. "He made a mistake."

It's a potentially lethal error that scores of young people have been increasingly making. Although Frary had ingested a pure form of DXM, users typically induce a zombie-like state called "dexing" or "robotripping" by ingesting drugstore medications such as Robitussin cough syrup or Coricidin cold tablets, known among users as red devils, triple-C's or skittles (the red pills, resembling candy, bear three C's). A number of Web sites even list the dosages, based on body weight, that a user needs to take to attain a high similar to that caused by PCP. Taking DXM in large quantities causes slurred speech, high blood pressure, loss of motor control or far worse (see box, page 51). "It can lead to seizures, coma and even death," say Charles Nozicka, director of pediatric emergency medicine at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, III, who sees as many as 30 DXM overdoses a year. Taken in large amounts, adds Nozicka, the drug can change the body's metabolism and possibly become addictive.

In 2003, U.S. poison-control centers received 3,271 calls—twice the number as three years earlier—related to teen use of DXM in pockets seemingly spread randomly around the country. In the past two years at least five deaths have been attributed to cough medications. Concerned parents in some communities have convinced pharmacies to take the popular products off the shelves and put them behind the counter, but in most places there's no such deterrent. "I don't think parents are acutely aware [of the risk]," says Andrea Barthwell of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "They tear families apart, they crush dreams."

Case in point: Jennifer Darling, a quiet girl who liked in-line skating and bicycling and had ascended the ranks of her Altamonte Springs, Fla., high school ROTC unit to become squad leader. "We didn't see a lot of signals saying here was someone getting off track," says Darvin Boothe, principal of Lake Brantley High School, where Jennifer was a senior. Though her father, Jim, 49, had overheard Jennifer, 18, talking to friends about getting high on cough medication, he and his wife Jill, 39, weren't overly concerned. Since the cough medications were sold over-the-counter, the Darlings assumed that they were harmless. "We thought, 'No big deal, so she's taking cough medicine,' " he says. " 'She won't be coughing, that's for sure.' "

But on the morning of Dec. 16,2002, Jill awoke to find Jennifer dead on her bathroom floor. When police found red pills in her bedroom, Jim called one of his daughter's friends, who admitted Jennifer had recently taken Coricidin to get a DXM high. "It was surreal," says Jill. "It absolutely didn't make any sense." According to the autopsy, Jennifer had an undetected heart condition that was exacerbated by high levels of chlorpheniramine, a key ingredient in the medication. By ingesting enough of the drug to get high, Jennifer had inadvertently triggered a lethal heart failure. (Cough medicine overdoses can also cause fatal liver damage.) "We never had any clue that this stuff could be deadly," says her father.

Nor, perhaps, did Cory Coleman, 14, a high school freshman in the affluent Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, Colo., who took Coricidin while partying with other teens last April. Police say that after telling pals that the drug was "starting to kick in," Coleman attempted to cross a four-lane highway to buy more pills at a nearby supermarket. He died after being struck by two cars. A toxicology report revealed high levels of DXM. "He told his friends the drug made him feel numb and altered his visual perception," says Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Donald Enloe, who adds that the drug appeals to many kids because they can hide its use more easily than LSD and Ecstasy, which dilate the pupils. "Most other drugs have an effect we can see," says Enloe. "They can take [DXM] and parents will never know."

Jon Frary's parents never caught on to what their son was doing secretly in the last months of his life, though he'd spent the entire summer at home, working for a landscaper. A natural athlete who loved tennis, he'd spent two years at the Air Force Academy before opting out of the military. He hoped to move to Los Angeles to pursue a movie career. "He was a fun, outgoing kid," says his mother, Linda. "Everyone liked being around him." His girlfriend Liz Kocol, 22, says he'd told her about experimenting with cough syrup in December 2002 and "something else you could buy on the Internet" last April. After she pleaded with him to stop using, he'd dumped out a bottle in front of her, pledging not to try it again.

But he did. According to a police report, officers who discovered Jon's body believed he "plugged his ears and covered his eyes for sensory deprivation, to increase the effect of DXM." They also found a notebook detailing his previous robotripping experiences. "Usually you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes," says Jeremy Foster, 23, a longtime friend. "Jon didn't get that opportunity."

Despite the dangers posed by DXM, there are few obstacles for teens intent on abusing it, since the medications that contain it are perfectly legal. Pure DXM—not classified as a narcotic—is uncontrolled by the government, and, of course, products such as Coricidin are useful medications used responsibly by millions. Mary-Fran Faraji, a spokeswoman for Coricidin's manufacturer, Schering-Plough, says the company has put the product in larger packages to make it more difficult to steal off the shelves, but she adds that DXM is available in 125 different products. "The problem is not just the substance, but the behavior," she says, "behavior that parents ought to be monitoring." Jennifer Darling's father agrees. "By telling our story, I just hope we can stop other parents, other siblings, other friends, from having to go through the grief we had to go through," he says, "because of something as stupid as getting high."

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Barbara Sandler in Normal, Kristin Harmel in Altamonte Springs, Vickie Bane in Denver, Andrea Billups in Washington, D.C., and Michael Haederle in Austin

  • Contributors:
  • Barbara Sandler,
  • Kristin Harmel,
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Andrea Billups,
  • Michael Haederle.