Go to a bar, a rave or just hang out on the street and you’ll come across somebody sipping an innocent-looking beverage, but getting a guilty high. Despite a frenzy of media reports warning about the dangers of GHB, it’s not just serious drug connoisseurs experimenting with it — college party-goers have discovered it as a way to get ‘drunk’ without a hangover, well-versed advocates use it daily as a form of self-medication, people in the pornographic film industry use it for its prosexual effects during shoots, and in its darkest application, rapists discovered it as a way to render victims helpless by intoxicating them without their knowledge.
A popular underground drug, GHB is also known as ‘G,’ ‘Liquid Ecstasy,’ ‘Vita-G,’ ‘Georgia Home Boy’ (pointing to its early use in the south), ‘Grievous Bodily Harm,’ ‘Easy Lay,’ ‘Somatomax,’ and ‘Scoop,’ among other names. Its recreational use was first noticed by authorities on the US coasts in the early 90s, predominately in the rave party scene. Its use throughout the country steadily increased throughout the 90s, but President Clinton finally dampened GHB users’ high Feb. 18 when he signed House Bill 2130, classifying GHB as a Schedule I drug, the same category as heroin and cocaine. The bill also declared Ketamine (or ‘Special K’), an animal tranquilizer, a softer Schedule III drug.
In Colorado, police didn’t become aware of GHB use until the latter part of the 90s. Melanie Rhamey, Crimes Analyst with the Boulder Police Department, says they began to see GHB cases in 1998.
While some states have already passed laws scheduling GHB as an illegal drug, in Colorado it is considered a ‘gray-market’ chemical, meaning it can not be manufactured, sold, or promoted, but cops can’t haul people away for simply having it. When the new law goes into effect Apr. 18, merely possessing GHB or its chemical cousins will land users 20 years behind bars and up to a million dollars in fines.
Part of the appeal for recreational users was that GHB was easy to buy or make. The chemicals are household products, available at hardware stores — your average chemistry student can whip up a batch within minutes.
Until the recent crack-down, “chemistry kits” to make GHB were widely available on the Internet. The kits contained raw materials and instructions, and were air-mailed to clients within a matter of days. The distribution of kits was essentially a legal loophole, insurance against prosecution for selling and promoting GHB. GHB advocates consistently warned against trying to make it with unknown grades of chemicals that might have been included in some of the kits — they said only very pure medical grades of chemicals should be used. Now those who are still compelled to try and manufacture GHB will only be able to easily obtain low-grade chemicals, meaning future concoctions of GHB may be even more dangerous.
(Editor’s note: now GHB precursors are sold on Amazon disguised as cleaning products, such as this conspicuously expensive ecological ink cleaning product.)
G Whiz: Medical Use of GHB
Dr. Henri Laborit, a French researcher, discovered GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) in 1960 in an effort to synthesize a chemical mimicking GABA, a naturally occurring chemical in the body that GHB metabolizes into. Laborit found GHB useful for the treatment of sleep disorders, as an anti-aging property, to aid childbirth, to combat muscle deterioration, sexual dysfunction and depression, among other applications. He was reported to be a daily user himself, until dying at the age of 91.
Prior to 1990, GHB was sold in US health food stores as a natural steroid alternative for its ability to increase pituitary growth hormone production experienced in deep sleep. Although this process isn’t fully understood by scientists, Japanese studies conducted in the 70s indicate that GHB burns fat and increases muscles when used in conjunction with heavy workouts. Because of its ability to produce growth hormone, which naturally declines with age, GHB has also been touted as an anti-aging chemical. It was only after GHB was outlawed for retail sale that its use in the party scene escalated.
A Boulder police officer, in District Three on The Hill, said she has come across several cases of students using GHB. One Friday night, she said, a young man who told her he prefers GHB to alcohol took four times the suggested dose and experienced convulsion-like muscle spasms. She reported that despite side-effects, he fully recovered, as did the other users she has encountered. Other symptoms of overdose are vomiting and unarousable sleep.
Despite the purported harmlessness of GHB when manufactured and used correctly, it can turn deadly when mixed with alcohol. Even pro-GHB literature warns against drinking alcohol while using GHB because they are both central nervous system depressants, which, when used in tandem, can shut down the body’s vital functions. GHB was reportedly found in the body of River Phoenix when he died at a Los Angeles nightclub — a report that many later disputed. Yet among college students, combining alcohol and GHB is common — reports abound of people guzzling GHB when they are very drunk, mistaking it for water despite its salty taste.
Advocates say GHB has been demonized in the press because of such irresponsible use. “Our society has become so immune to alcohol,” said GHB user Anne Sheila Benetto*. “It’s the main reason people get sick when doing G. I’m a G purist. It irritates me when people mix it with stuff. When people don’t take it intelligently, I end up having to take care of them.”
Tim McFadden, a detox counselor at the Boulder Alcohol Recovery Center, said that in his ten-year drug-counseling career, he has never had an admittance of a GHB user for detox. “It’s out there but it’s an itty-bitty microscopic problem compared to alcohol abuse. It happens to be the drug of the day.”
Trading in the Prozac for GHB
It’s two AM and 48-year-old Rem Selnick* is mixing chemicals from plastic bottles marked “Keep out of reach of children.” As he pours the main ingredients to make GHB together into a bowl on his bathroom floor, a reaction reminiscent of a fourth grade science experiment occurs. A hissing sound is created as the chemicals foam and bubble up. Selnick adds water to the concoction, then pops the clear, dense liquid into the microwave for six minutes. He’s just cooked up a liquid concentrate of GHB. A computer screen illuminates the room as Selnick pours the liquid into a glass of juice and begins to sip casually from it.
Selnick, who runs his own computer programming company, has long believed that adults should be permitted to alter their consciousness in any way they choose, provided they aren’t harming anyone. After being busted for cocaine possession and put on four years probation, Selnick has used GHB daily. Selnick considers GHB medicine and says it has helped him in innumerable ways — it has made him more sociable, improved his sex life, helped him sleep, and cured what he has dubbed ‘Probation Stress Disorder’. Since it can’t be detected in routine urine analysis after a matter of hours, it is one of few only recreational drugs he can enjoy. When someone’s on GHB, he said, “You feel dizziness like drinking but different. You’re in a good mood, worries and concerns don’t get to you. It effects the way light looks. It makes the skin feel very good. It’s hard to have negative thoughts on GHB. It would be a more peaceful world if everyone did it.” But, he added, “Like any other drug you have to do it responsibly.
Selnick said before he took up GHB he drank a quart of vodka a day. “It is the one and only substance I hold responsible for allowing me to quit drinking. Four years — I haven’t had a drink.” He also credits it with allowing him to abandon his 25 year cocaine habit — something he said he has no desire to do, but is being forced to do by the state. This, too, he said, “would not have been even remotely possible if it wasn’t for the [GHB]. GHB helps on a wide panacea of levels.” Selnick isn’t worried about side effects from GHB. He claims his psychotherapist and his physician, unaware of his GHB use, haven’t noticed any usual health problem and report that he is in good health. The only negative thing about GHB, he said, is that it impairs his driving as if he’s been drinking — a problem he has resolved by simply not driving while on GHB.
Benetto, the eighteen-year-old GHB user, said she takes GHB an average of three to four times a day. “I like to take it at work because it makes me sociable and happy. I’m a really tense person and it just helps me relax.” Because of GHB’s muscle building properties, Benetto said she can eat whatever she wants and stay in shape. “I have a good body, and I do no exercise. I’m skinny and I have good muscle tone,” she said. “Genetically, I shouldn’t have this body. I know it wouldn’t be this good if I didn’t do G.” Benetto said though she’s mostly a daytime user, she will also occasionally take GHB if she only has a few hours to get a night’s sleep. She said that since it takes users immediately into a deep sleep, she will wake up feeling good.
Milo Delph*, a computer systems specialist with a chemistry degree, uses GHB to self-treat for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). When he was fourteen he started using cocaine, saying it helped him to stay focused and alert for school. “All of a sudden the fog would just lift. I could think like a normal person. I’d be able to read a book and finish a page without forgetting what I just read. Of course, it’s an exceptionally detrimental drug, for a fourteen year old.” It wasn’t until 1995, when he was twenty-five, that Delph was finally diagnosed with ADD. He was prescribed amphetamines, Xanax (an antianxiety drug), and Paxal (an antidepressant), which he said started a vicious pill cycle that made him constantly feel edgy. “It got to the point that it was very bad,” he said. “Finally I discovered GHB.” After reading up on it, he quit the prescription drugs, learned how to make GHB, and began using daily, a switch that he claims allows him to function normally.
Seventeen year-old Juan Carlos* relates a similar path, but in his case, he suffered from depression and was prescribed Prozac. He said his psychiatrist doesn’t know he stopped taking the Prozac, but he has observed smugly that his treatment seems to be working. Carlos purchases his GHB by the liter for about $40 or $50. Like Delph, he takes a relatively large dose of GHB in the morning and then follows it up with three to five milliliters up to 15 times a day. To pay for his own stash, he makes a profit reselling it for $100 a liter to former alcoholics, weight lifters, and even bartenders and shop owners at well-known Boulder establishments. Now that these regular users are going to have difficulty obtaining the ingredients to make GHB, what do they plan to do? Selnick said even though the new law bans all of GHB’s precursor chemicals, he’s in the process of doing chemistry homework to find new GHB precursors that he hopes the DEA hasn’t discovered yet.
The Great GHB Debate
Behind the media reports is an intense GHB debate comprised of two very vocal opposing factions — on the one side is the FDA, DEA, and families whose loved ones reportedly died of GHB overdose. This is the group that has conducted a public awareness campaign and is responsible for getting GHB made into a Schedule I drug.
On the other side of the debate is a much smaller group of doctors, researchers, and GHB users, including narcoleptics, who are sometimes prescribed GHB to treat their debilitating daytime sleeping disorder. This group claims GHB is an exceedingly safe and useful substance that has been banned because of pharmaceutical companies, who they say are intrinsically intertwined with the FDA. They point out that the mainstream press often refers to GHB as a ‘designer drug’, but it is a natural substance found in meat and vegetables and every cell of the human body.
Central to the debate is the case of Hillory Farias, a seventeen-year-old La Porte, Texas, girl whose 1996 death was attributed to GHB. Before the Farias case, no death had been attributed exclusively to GHB ingestion alone. Farias died in her sleep after going to a dance club one night. No cause of death was able to be determined until a sheriff received a tip about a new underground drug called GHB from the Houston Police Department. An autopsy showed Farias had 27 milligrams of GHB in her system. Police determined that her drink must have been spiked with GHB at the club, causing her to die. In reaction, the Farias family rallied against GHB, seeking to inform the public about the dangerous new drug.
Dr. Ward Dean, co-author of GHB: The Natural Mood Enhancer, describes GHB as “one of the most useful substances known to man.” He is so confident in GHB and its precursor chemicals’ safety that he gives it to his kids to help them sleep. He and his team after studying the autopsy report say GHB had nothing to do Farias’ death. First, the amount of GHB found in Farias’ body isn’t even enough to get someone high.
In clinical studies, rats are regularly given many times that amount of GHB without dying. Also, narcoleptics use much higher doses of GHB daily without any reported side effects and three grams of GHB is typically prescribed to induce sleep. They point out that Farias died in her sleep many hours after getting home. Since GHB is a fast acting molecule, any effects from unusual toxicity would have showed up within an hour, they say. In GHB over-dose, people fall into a deep sleep within minutes, but Farias was able to say goodbye to her friends, get out of the car, get inside her house and climb into bed on her own. Lastly, GHB is often found in the blood post-mortem, says Dean. Up to 168 milligrams have been found in the blood of cadavers that had not ingested any GHB. Dean believes that that body can produce huge amounts of GHB at the time of death as a way to try and protect the brain and organs from low oxygen levels in the body, thus any death can be attributed to GHB ingestion.
Dean and his team say the coroner eventually determined that Farias suffered from a congenital heart disease, and died as the result of a blood clot. Nevertheless, the title of the bill that President Bill Clinton signed is officially called the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act (neither of the girls were sexually assaulted either). Whatever the true cause of death was, in the end Farias’ parents were conspicuously absent from the list of people who testified in support of the bill named after their daughter.
Lack of Quality Control
The potency of street GHB varies widely, what may be an adequate dose with one batch could be too much with another. When produced in clandestine laboratories, it can also contain undissolved toxic chemicals. Even with pure GHB, a small amount will bring the desired effect — if a person takes too much they may get sick or fall into an unarousable sleep. Most users measure their doses by ‘caps,’ referring to the tops of plastic bottles that many drink their concoction from. Only one or two caps are necessary, but at a party it’s easy to be inattentive to how much one is ingesting. Some thrill seekers, unaware of the correct dosage, add large amounts of GHB to drinks as if it was alcohol, only to pass out or end up in the hospital.
Since high doses of GHB induce very deep sleep, involuntary twitches and comatose-like sleep can occur. Yet some say even overdoses cause no lingering problems for victims. Cases have been reported where a GHB user ends up in the emergency room and pronounced comatose, only to wake up feeling well a few hours later, despite hefty medical bills. Others aren’t so lucky according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, who has attributed 45 deaths to GHB. According to Benetto, caffeine is a good antidote to GHB overdose. She carries around No-Doze tablets as a precaution.
“We’re worried the public is misinformed,” said Dr. Frank Daly a toxicologist with the Rocky Mountain Poison Center, which received 36 calls regarding GHB in 1998. “We’ve had problems. People think it’s good for them so they take a lot.” He says he’s had cases where parents give it to their kids, thinking that since it’s a nutrient no amount is too much.
Alternative health practitioners who are proponents of GHB point out that in Europe, a GHB product called Alcover is prescribed to lessen withdrawal symptoms and cravings for alcohol and heroin abusers. It’s also used as a sleep aid, and as an aid in childbirth for its ability to dilate the cervix and relax both mother and child. In North Africa and Latin America it is used as a low-cost anesthetic agent. In the US it was also once used as an anesthetic, but doctors found it didn’t last long enough for many procedures.
There are currently 15 product investigation applications for GHB pending with the FDA. These ‘Investigations of a New Drug’ (INDs) are requests for further studies of GHB’s usefulness in an array of disorders, including high cholesterol and Parkinson’s disease. One of GHB’s main benefits in medicine is that when manufactured commercially and used correctly, it is non-toxic. In fact, “Table salt is more toxic than GHB [when it’s made correctly],” said Dean. Presently, U.S. doctors are permitted to prescribe GHB in experimental research, testing its usefulness in the treatment of narcolepsy.
A report put out by the California Department of Health Services in 1992 inadvertently gave GHB proponents some of their best arguments. Their findings are covered in two pro-GHB books: Better Sex through Chemistry: A Guide to the New Prosexual Drugs & Nutrients and Dr. Ward Dean’s GHB: The Natural Mood Enhancer. Though the California report said GHB has tremendous potential for abuse because of its availability and the pleasurable feelings associated with it, they added, “There are no documented reports of long-term [injurious] effects. Nor is there evidence for physiological addiction.”
“The government’s real problem with GHB,” said Dean, “is that it makes people feel good.”
A Rapist’s Weapon
In 1997, Boulder police traced several sexual assaults to The Foundry, a local bar, where women apparently had drinks spiked with GHB. The typical scenario, said Detective Chuck Heidal, is that a woman wakes up in a strange place, and will report that she only drank a little alcohol, and then all of a sudden went in and out of consciousness, or cannot recall the evening at all after that.
It’s not only college students who are drugged and then sexually assaulted. Kate Feeny,* a professional woman in her mid-fifties, said she didn’t realize she had been raped until weeks after she had gone out on a blind date arranged through the Boulder Daily Camera personal ads. Feeny felt comfortable meeting the man — they had a long phone conversation beforehand and found they had some things in common.
When they got to the crowded restaurant, Feeny’s date went to the bar and got drinks for both of them. As he handed her the cocktail he warned her that “they don’t make them very good here.” She noticed the drink was a little cloudy and tasteless, but it had never occurred to her that he could have put drugs in the drink.
A regular social drinker, who says she’s well aware of her limits, Feeny had one more drink over dinner — the second one, she reports, was brought by the waitress and tasted normal. Over dinner, Feeny’s date leaned over and kissed her twice, testing to see if the drug’s disinhibiting effect was working. After dinner she went to his house, where he suddenly emerged from the bathroom naked. The details became fuzzy after that, she says, though she knows they had sex twice. Feeny says she had no will to react as she normally would. “I wasn’t attracted to him; I wouldn’t have gone to bed with him.”
The next morning Feeny had a headache (a symptom of GHB overdose) and felt disoriented, but she didn’t realize she had been drugged until weeks later when she spoke about the incident to a friend and the details came together. She then realized the whole incident was premeditated — the man knew she had an important public appearance the next day, and would not be able to report the crime before the drugs left her body. Feeny doesn’t blame the drug for her bad experience. “Rape is rape whether they use one drug or another. It’s the way it’s used, it’s the intent.”
Sex crime experts say because of the shame felt by rape victims, and the lack of memory around drug-induced rape, the actual numbers of GHB-related rapes are probably much higher.
“Date rape drugs can be just as dangerous as a gun or a knife. It makes it easy for the rapist to commit their crime,” said Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at UCLA. For these reasons, Abarbanel and her team have developed a line of educational pamphlets about drug-induced date rape for students.
Even when sex crimes are reported and there is physical evidence, assaults can be difficult to prove when victims do not remember details. Rapists can, and have, gotten away with their crime in Boulder by simply claiming the sex was consensual.
Toxicologist Daly said the only confirmed reports of drug-induced rape he has come across involve Rohypnol, a chemical cousin of GHB available in pill form.
Rohypnol, or Flunitrazepam, is usually smuggled from Mexico, where it is used as a pre-anesthetic agent. While Rohypnol (“Ruffies”) is a tasteless pill that can be dropped into a drink and cause memory loss for a significant period of time, its use is not as prevalent as GHB in Colorado. GHB resembles sea water in taste. Regular users say it’s hard to imagine that someone could unknowingly ingest it because of the taste, but in sweet drinks it’s hardly noticeable, and the combined effects of the alcohol and GHB will cloud much more than a drinker’s sense of taste.
Foundry general manager Stan Craig said that because of their GHB incidents, they now have a sign in the women’s bathroom warning them not to take drinks from strangers or leave them unattended. In late 1998 he reported, “Since last spring we’ve educated our clientele. This is something we want to prevent.” Additionally, bouncers are told to watch couples leaving together to see that they are fully consensual. Though this is difficult to determine by a quick glance, if it appears that a potential victim is too inebriated to make an informed decision, the bouncers sometimes take down the license numbers of departing patrons to increase the chance that perpetrators will be discouraged. On occasion, they have even gone so far as to step in and put people in different cabs.
For official deterrence, prosecutors have been able to turn to the Drug-Induced Rape Prevention Act of 1996, which stepped up penalties for sexual predators who use date-rape drugs with the intent to commit a crime of violence. With the new law, officials have even more power to prosecute rapists using GHB as their weapon of choice.
Police say that if a person suspects she has ingested GHB and was sexually assaulted to report it within at least 12 hours in order to have evidence of the drug in her body. Even if victims do not want to formally report the crime or have little evidence, police say it helps if they call headquarters and report it informally to help them establish sex crime patterns.
Is Recreational GHB too Good to Be True?
According to the rule of thumb that says anything that makes you feel good is bad for you, GHB ought to be awfully unhealthy. Some users suspect it could have an undetected downside. “I do worry about long-term side effects,” said Benetto. Since the substance has only been around thirty years, she said, she tries to compare possible side-effects with friends’ experiences — if she wakes up with stiff joints, she will ask other G users if they have the same experience. Still, she’s willing to risk the unknown for the benefits she experiences. “[GHB] seems almost too good to be true. It’s the perfect drug.”
McFadden, the substance abuse counselor isn’t so sure. Though it may not be proven to be physiologically addicting, GHB may subtly hook users, he notes. Marijuana isn’t physically addicting either, he said, but in his experience, habitual pot smokers have a very difficult time kicking their habit.
And there are the uncertainties of using an unregulated substance, points out Devin Koontz, public affairs specialist for the Food and Drug Administration’s Denver office. “Underground consumers don’t know what they’re getting. Even when they manufacture it themselves, it’s not under sterile conditions.” That’s exactly why it should be legal, say GHB advocates — so that there is some quality control.
But, “It’s not a conspiracy to keep GHB from consumers,” responded Koontz. “US drug companies could lobby for it to be approved and market their own GHB if they thought it had potential on the prescription market,” he said. Advocates repeatedly counter that it is too cheap to produce to be profitable for drug companies to fund the rigorous tests required by the FDA. Laura Bradbard, a Washington-based public affairs representative with the FDA, said, “That would be a financial decision of a particular individual or drug company, but the law still says that a drug product must be tested in humans and must be tested to prove efficacy and safety.”
Xyrem, a brand name GHB product to be used for the treatment of narcolepsy, has been approved for production, but special registration requirements outlined by the new law have narcolepsy patients worried that the costs to manufacturers of meeting the requirements will mean Xyrem won’t make it to the market.
Normally, to proclaim a substance a Schedule I drug, the FDA has to declare the substance medically useless, and an unacceptable risk to public health, but they were able to side-step that requirement in the face of the dangerous nature attributed to GHB.
Andrew Baer, an MD with practices in Pennsylvania and North Virginia, specializes in holistic medicine and has written a number of articles on the benefits of GHB. He said he has written prescriptions for GHB for a number of medical problems, but there are no longer compounding pharmacists (who make their own drugs) in his area to fill the prescriptions — while they used to be able to occasionally get GHB from overseas suppliers, patients now face serving time behind bars for following doctors’ orders.
“The FDA and the DEA are eroding our freedom,” he said. “You’ve got a few cases of kids abusing it with alcohol and its use in date-rape, so we have to make a law. We have a nation of sheep. They don’t educate themselves. You got a problem, so legislate. It’s the American way.”
If that’s the American way, it works for those who have fought to outlaw GHB — they’re just glad it’s finally officially illegal.
* Not their real names.
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