In recent years, I have witnessed an increase in the recreational use of dextromethorphan among Texas doctors. An ingredient found in many common cold medicines, dextromethorphan acts as an effective cough suppressant by operating as a narcotic analgesic thereby relieving upper respitory irritation. When administered at higher, non-therapeutic doses, however, the drug causes dissociative hallucinogenic effects that have been compared to those caused by ketamine and PCP.
At a lower recreational dose, “dex” can lead to a mild euphoria. At higher levels the effects include an intense euphoria, vivid imagination, and closed-eyed hallucinations. Taken to extreme levels the user will experience complete alterations in consciousness which can even extend to temporary psychosis. While physical addiction is rare, psychological addiction is likely, and long-term or intense use can cause permanent damage to chemical receptors in the brain.
Increased awareness of dextromethorphan abuse has caused most sellers of cough medicines containing the drug to move it behind the counter. This obstacle is less of a challenge to physicians who have ready access to prescription versions of the same medicines. One of the most troubling aspects of this trend is the fact that the drug screens used by the Texas Medical Board will not detect dextromethorphan. This in part probably explains its popularity among chemically dependent Texas doctors. While dextromethorphan is not currently included in the Controlled Substances Act this could easily change as awareness of its use as a recreational drug spreads.
Unfortunately, use of dextromethorphan and its attendant hallucinogenic effects present serious practice risks and potentially imperil patient safety. Licensees should also be aware that a positive drug screen is not needed for the Texas Medical Board to pursue disciplinary action. Many of the complaints commonly received by my firm consist of nothing more than an allegation that the doctor “seemed confused and out of it” or “like he was drunk” while on duty. It should also be obvious that the Board will vigorously pursue any allegation that a doctor is abusing their prescriptive authority to obtain drugs for recreational use.
Any doctor being investigated or prosecuted for dextromethorphan use should contact an attorney with experience before the Texas Medical Board so that they are aware of their options. A common course of action is to have the doctor evaluated by an independent expert in addiction to determine whether or not they are chemically dependent. If so, then self-referral to a quality drug rehabilitation center is often the best choice for both the doctor and for reaching a beneficial agreement with the TMB. As in all cases, disciplinary charges based on intemperate use and/or abuse of prescriptive authority have their own set of complex issues that is typically better handled by an attorney with experience before the Medical Board.