Why the CIA Invented Cough Syrup

Much of the cough syrup on the shelves today owes a little something to the US Navy and the CIA. One of its main effective ingredients was developed by a project funded by both agencies. Learn why.

Dextromethorphan (DM), a major ingredient in many cough syrups, is not entirely uncontroversial. At high doses it can produce hallucinations and get people high. What it doesn’t do is get people pleasantly high. Forums dedicated to drug use include entries like, “Worst thing I’ve done,” and “Terrified of Dying.” That sounds like one of the projects the CIA would engage on during its MKUltra evil phase.

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Actually, this drug was developed well before that phase. It was invented, with the support of the Navy, to fix a practical problem. People in the field, or in a war, or stuck on a boat, needed to function even when they were sick. This meant they needed the best medication, and the best medication in the early 1950s was codeine. Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with codeine knows the problem there. Codeine always makes people high. It also makes them sleepy, and just as a bonus it is physically addictive. Everyone needed an alternative.

What they eventually developed was chemically similar to morphine. It could be gulped down in syrup. Once it was absorbed in the stomach, it entered the bloodstream and eventually crossed over into the brain. There it suppressed the part of the brain that signalled people to cough. Essentially, it raised the barrier of sensitivity required to make someone cough, without affecting anything else—at least at low doses.

DM is still in cough syrups, though it’s been eliminated from most children’s cough syrups. It can be and is abused, but it isn’t physically addictive. That puts it a cut above a lot of other medicines out there. So, hey, thanks Central Intelligence Agency.

Image: Nikola Bilic/Shutterstock

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