As its popularity grows, so does the death toll

'Date rape' drug GHB making inroads in nation's club scene

GHB, a highly addictive ''date rape'' drug outlawed by Congress two years ago, is becoming increasingly popular on college campuses and at raves even though it can trigger potentially fatal comas.
The emergence of GHB as a recreational drug comes as law enforcement officials are focusing on Ecstasy, a more widely used club drug. GHB's surge has surprised police and health officials, who for years have treated the mixture of common industrial chemicals as something that few people would consume by choice.
Unlike Ecstasy or cocaine, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) gives users no sense of euphoria. The slightly bitter liquid puts users in a dreamy stupor, or worse, a coma that can kill them. Government and law enforcement education efforts regarding GHB have dealt largely with warning women about predators who could spike their drinks with the drug, rather than the risks of taking it for fun.

''Something that puts you into a coma is not something (most people) voluntarily do,'' says Alan Leshner, a former executive director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. ''Normal people don't say, 'I'm looking forward to my next coma.' ''
Drug abuse agencies nationwide are placing more emphasis on the dangers of GHB, which also is known as ''G,'' ''Liquid X'' and ''Easy Lay'' among teenagers and young adults who use it.
Emergency room admissions involving GHB nearly quadrupled nationwide from 1998 through 2000, when 4,969 cases were reported, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says. U.S. officials do not keep statistics on how many people use particular drugs, but they say survey data and anecdotal evidence -- such as drug seizures and activity by drug traffickers -- indicate that Ecstasy easily remains the most popular club drug.
And yet, more people are overdosing on GHB than Ecstasy. In 2000, 2,482 GHB users visited the emergency room for an overdose compared with 1,742 Ecstasy users. Health officials say that's an indication that GHB is more dangerous and gaining in popularity.

The Drug Enforcement Administration says 73 people have died from taking GHB since 1995. There were 27 Ecstasy-related deaths from 1994 to 1998, according to the most recent figures available from U.S. officials.
The federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reports that GHB is appearing most often in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, New Orleans and San Francisco. Of the GHB users who showed up in emergency rooms in 1999, 56% said they had used the drug with alcohol; 15% had used it with Ecstasy.
One of GHB's recent victims was Alexander Klochkoff, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Maryland who was found facedown in a beanbag chair at his fraternity house Sept. 5. Klochkoff's death led officials at the College Park campus to issue new warnings to students about the risks of taking GHB.

Despite the risks, some youths continue to take the drug.  Some point out that it gives them an alcohol-like buzz -- known as a ''G-ber daze'' -- without their having to down several expensive cocktails. Unlike alcohol, GHB has no telltale odor that parents or police might detect. It also is cheap ($5 to $10 for a shot-glass dose) and easy to mix, using recipes that are available on the Internet.
Although Congress made GHB illegal in 2000 and authorities have arrested dozens of suppliers, the ingredients to make the drug are available many places where industrial cleaning solvents are sold. They can be obtained through foreign outlets, Internet sites and hardware stores.
''If people are motivated to get it, it's relatively easy to get,'' says Jim Hall of the Up Front Drug Information Center in Miami.
Michael Scrimo, 20, who lives in a suburb of New York City, says he first came across GHB three years ago in nightclubs where Ecstasy, cocaine and the veterinary anesthetic ketamine (known as ''Special K'') were widely available.
Scrimo says he was looking to buy some Ecstasy pills when a friend offered him GHB. At the time, Scrimo's personal life had taken a plunge.
He had blown his chances of getting a college athletic scholarship and had been kicked out of his high school because he was arrested for dealing drugs on campus. Scrimo wanted something that would help him zone out and forget his problems.
He tried GHB and liked it.
''I felt like really numb, all five senses. I couldn't walk straight, I couldn't hear, I couldn't see,'' says Scrimo, who wound up being addicted to GHB and other drugs and recently spent time in a drug rehabilitation program in Long Island, N.Y., run by Phoenix House.
Scrimo says he usually took GHB in gel caps. He says he would ''take two or three or four at a time, and have a black-out night.'' Since then, he says, ''I've heard that people have died on GHB. I could have died so many times.''

Bodybuilders were first victims

Much of the nation first took notice of GHB in the mid-1990s, when dozens of women across the nation reported waking up naked, bruised and with no memory of what had happened the night before. Police learned that men had spiked their drinks with GHB and then raped the women after they lost consciousness.
At the time, GHB solutions of varying potency were legal and were displayed in health food stores and gyms, marketed under names such as ''Enliven,'' ''Renewtrient'' and ''Blue Nitro.'' Health supplement distributors touted them as natural formulas to promote sleep, slow the aging process and build muscle.
There is little scientific data to suggest that GHB affects aging or muscle-building, but that didn't stop bodybuilders from snapping up GHB products. Muscle men in San Francisco and Miami were the first to overdose on the substance, in 1990. Their deaths signaled to authorities that manufactured GHB could be highly addictive.

A form of GHB occurs naturally in the body, doctors say. The brain uses minute quantities of it to shut off one function so that another can begin. Many GHB users assume incorrectly that increasing GHB levels in the body is either harmless or beneficial, Leshner says. But the brain's delicate chemical balance is upset easily, he says, and too much GHB can depress breathing and nervous system functions to the point that users are unable to roll over in their sleep.
Those who die after taking GHB usually ''fall on their faces and smother, or they aspirate (on their own vomit) into their lungs and suffocate,'' Leshner says.
When GHB users combine the drug with a shot of caffeine and ephedrine, the chemical found in many cold remedies and diet pills, the users feel disembodied, says Trinka Porrata, a drug consultant and former narcotics officer for the Los Angeles Police Department. ''At first, it's an anti-depressant,'' Porrata says. ''In four to eight months, it takes over your body and soul. It owns you.''
Gamma hydroxybutyrate's precursors are cleaning solvents called gamma butylactone and 1,4 butanediol -- chemical cousins that the body converts to GHB.
GHB and the chemicals used to make it are tightly controlled and are illegal for human consumption. But anyone with Internet access can order ingredient kits from Web sites where they are advertised as natural formulas for cleaning printer ink jet cartridges and weight belts. Drinks containing GHB are still sold on Japanese, Greek and other foreign Web sites.
Last June, police in Santa Clara County, Calif., arrested a 26-year-old man who had ordered gamma butylactone and 1,4 butanediol via the Internet, says Robert Mecir, who commands an investigative team for the California Department of Justice. The man, who was charged with possession of GHB, told police he had taken six doses a day for three years, says Mecir, who adds that he has seen use of the drug in his area jump recently.

Like Leshner, many doctors and health officials who study trends in drug use continue to be puzzled by GHB's appeal.  ''As a physician, I can't say if you take it you're going to fall over dead, but I can say you are playing Russian roulette,'' says Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment in Rockville, Md., a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ''Do you feel lucky, as Clint Eastwood would say?''
Scrimo and other recovering GHB addicts say that one of the scariest things about the drug is that the potency of doses can vary widely, depending on how the ingredients are mixed.

'Tons of people buying it'

Jen, 19, who grew up in a Philadelphia suburb and recently was treated for drug addiction at the Caron Foundation in Wernersville, Pa., says her boyfriend used to mix GHB in the kitchen. She says he measured the chemicals, heated them to make a potent-smelling base and then threw in ice to cool and dilute the base. Then they poured the finished GHB solution into empty Gatorade bottles and sold quarts for as much as $200.
''There were tons of people buying it,'' says Jen, who asked that her last name not be used. The chemicals were ''so cheap and it was a great way to get screwed up.''
Jen says she often used GHB to try to mellow out while coming off a cocaine high. She says she last drank GHB about a year ago. ''If you take too much, it'll make you go into a G-ber daze,'' Jen says. ''You start to sweat. You're not conscious at all. You won't remember. You twitch. It's scary.''
The ratio of water to chemicals determines the potency of a batch of GHB, putting users at the mercy of kitchen chemists.
Kevin Newell, 22, of Lake Forest, Calif., says he never knew how much GHB was in the cupfuls he used to swig. Newell, 18 at the time, also used heroin and speed, but says that GHB was cheaper and easier to find. He is now in court-ordered drug treatment at Phoenix House in Orange County, Calif.
Treatment centers across the country are reporting jumps in GHB cases. In 1999, the Hazelden Foundation facilities in Center City, Minn., and Chicago treated five people who had used GHB. In 2000, they treated 39, says Carol Falkowski, director of research communications at Hazelden.
Many who have observed the drug scene for years say that hospital and treatment center data underestimate the GHB problem because many doctors don't think to ask patients about the drug.
''There's always a learning curve,'' Falkowski says. ''Most of the drug abuse surveys (given to teenagers, adult drug users and medical personnel) do not even include a question about GHB.''
Doctors are still trying to set protocols to treat GHB addiction and ease the excruciating withdrawal that addicts face. Those being treated for addiction generally become anxious and can't sleep. Some become delirious. Treatment centers report that addicts trying to withdraw from GHB often attempt suicide.
Tyler Johnson, 27, of Beebe, Ark., shot himself in the head on July 16, 2000, after quitting GHB cold turkey, says his father, David Johnson. Tyler had just graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a degree in criminal justice and had been accepted at a law school in Oklahoma City.
He had been a bodybuilder for about 10 years in 1999 when he began taking a supplement made from 1,4 butanediol, which converted to GHB in the body. Eventually, Tyler became addicted and took a dose every four hours. He went through an $80 bottle every few days, his father says. Tyler continued to take the supplement even after March 13, 2000, when the government banned sales of GHB supplements.
''It was marketed as a healthy thing, all natural,'' David Johnson says. ''That misinformation cost Tyler his life.'' Johnson says he plans to sue the manufacturer and distributor of the supplement after a criminal case against the distributor is resolved.

Johnson can't forget the image of Tyler struggling to get off GHB.  ''It's a terrible ordeal,'' Johnson says. ''Hallucinations, heart palpitations. The night before he shot himself, I was with him from 7 p.m. until about 3 a.m., researching (GHB) on the Internet. He was uncomfortable and twitchy, but I didn't realize it was that serious. Three hours later, he put the gun in his mouth.

Report by Donna Leinwand


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