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[whitespace] Designer Drug War

As lawmakers try to quash designer drugs like GHB and GBL, chemists and distributors outrun the legislation by tweaking the formulas and selling kits on the Internet

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

A 23-year-old female college student walks into a San Francisco detoxification center, asking to be admitted for her drug addiction. She is suffering from increasing symptoms of paranoia and has both visual and auditory hallucinations. Her heart races and her blood pressure has jumped to the danger point. It takes nine full days for her to recover from bouts of paranoia, extreme agitation and delirium.

In Texas, a young male patient is rushed into an emergency room, deep in a coma and suffering from depressed respiration. The emergency technicians scramble to save the patient's life, stuffing a breathing tube down the man's trachea. Suddenly, in the midst of the procedure, the patient sits upright on the operating table, wide awake, able to breathe normally and wondering what the hell he is doing there.

In Georgia a "date rape drug" conviction of two Atlanta men is challenged because--although there was no doubt that sex was involved--the victim cannot recall the alleged rape because the drug caused her to have no memory of it, and all traces of the drug had dissolved in her body before she could be tested by police.

And in yet another state, eight young people are rushed to the University of Michigan Hospital emergency room suffering from overdoses of some new party drug, all with symptoms of suppressed activity in their nervous systems. "Two or three of the cases could have resulted in death" if they had not been treated immediately, a hospital spokesperson says.

Separated by thousands of miles, these incidents all have one common denominator: all of them involved the use of GHB (gamma-hydroxybutryate acid), an increasingly popular party drug often used by Bay Area high school students in all-night dances called raves.

The drug is also known by the name "liquid ecstasy" and is sometimes confused with another "designer drug," MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine hydrochloride), or the original "ecstasy." Although they are chemically unrelated, the effects of the two drugs can be similar, particularly as a sexual stimulant. It was MDMA that eight San Jose middle school students ingested last week on their school campus, sending them to the emergency room and to possible school discipline and criminal liability.

Last year, citing GHB-related emergency-room episodes that went from zero to 103 in Los Angeles and zero to 83 in San Francisco between 1992 and 1996, the California Legislature passed legislation making possession of the drug a crime.

But before fans of the substance had time to mourn its loss, Internet distributors and amateur chemists were hopscotching over the law by changing a chemical compound or two, marketing a new, equally intoxicating chemical cousin called GBL (gamma butyrolactone). When mixed in water with another easily obtainable chemical, NaOH, GBL can be transformed into GBH, which is still legal. In fact, packages containing the two chemicals in separate bottles were marketed on the Internet as "GBH kits" shortly after the GHB ban went into effect.

According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, "at small doses GHB encourages a reduction of social inhibitions, similar to alcohol, and an increased libido." Thus, it is often used in both the straight and gay communities as a sex enhancer. At higher doses the drug induces a deep sleep. At higher doses still, the drug user can appear to be in a coma and adverse respiratory effects can occur. When mixed with alcohol--which distributors universally warn against doing, but some users do anyway--it can be fatal.

In 1990 the Food and Drug Administration began cracking down on so-called designer drugs, bringing criminal charges against GHB distributors and warning that GHB "can cause dangerously low respiratory rates ..., unconsciousness/coma, vomiting, seizures, bradycardia and death" and therefore "poses a significant public health hazard."

As a synthetically produced drug, GHB has been used since 1960 in Europe as a general anesthetic. In both Europe and America, GHB is being used by some doctors both as a sleep inducer to treat victims of narcolepsy and insomnia and as treatment to ease the symptoms of patients trying to recover from alcohol addiction. In the United States, the drug has been legally sold over the counter to bodybuilders as a growth hormone stimulant. It was sold under such names as Renewtrient, Revivarant, Blue Nitro, GH Revitalizer, Gamma G and Remforce.

GHB can also be easily manufactured by street and Internet chemists, and is often sold underground at raves in pill or bottled liquid form, where it goes by such names as "Liquid E," "Great Hormones at Bedtime" and "Georgia Home Boy." Slightly altering the letters, police sometimes refer to it as "Grievous Bodily Harm."

"Kit suppliers used to abound on the Internet," writes one GHB advocate, "Chemgirl," on her website. "However, due to the over zealous actions of the DEA, FDA and other 'law enforcement' agencies, all the kit makers in the U.S. have shut down." "Chemgirl" now suggests that interested parties obtain the two chemicals separately, one of them from a soapwork supplier. "DO NOT mention GHB ... or ask any questions when communicating with [the soapwork supplier]," she warns. "They are a real soap company. ... I have had several emails from people who have had their orders refused because they ask GHB related questions. This is a great source. Please don't fuck it up by asking stupid questions or else they might stop selling NaOH without all the other soap making shit."

One out-of-the-country GHB kit distributor, Pelchat Labs, openly boasts on its website: "I stopped shipping to the USA ... because the FDA made me believe that [GHB] and [GBL] were illegal," the owner writes. "After speaking with one of their 'special agents' I learned that they were in fact not illegal ... but they were after suppliers who were selling to individuals. ... This 'special agent' told me that there was no problem to resell to companies who have legitimate uses. I checked my orders and I noticed that a big part of them were already to companies. I decided to ship my chemicals to the USA again to these companies (and new ones). If there is a way for me to know that you will do something illegal with your order, I won't send you anything, I will refund you and I won't answer your emails." To qualify as a "company," Pelchat Labs says the buyer must only put a company name on the order form. "How will you know my company name is for real?" the website asks in a FAQ. "That is the problem," the lab owner answers. "I won't know. I will have to trust you. I know from experience that Americans are honest."

IN AN EFFORT TO CLOSE the chemical loophole, the California Legislature passed a law this year, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose), making possession of GBL (Blue Nitro) a crime. In urging its passage, Honda called Blue Nitro "deadly" and "a potent and powerful date-rape drug used by deviants across the state." A spokesperson for Honda's office said that the bill was introduced at the urging of law enforcement officials from around the Bay Area. "We didn't have any evidence that there was a particular problem in the South Bay; it's a statewide concern," the spokesperson said.

But some independent medical and chemical experts say that GHB is a therapeutic drug that poses no risk to public health if used responsibly, and that its banning is, according to one newsgroup poster, a "rush to judgment crisis ... manufactured by the [Food and Drug Administration], aided and abetted by the [Drug Enforcement Agency], compounded by local police, inflamed by the media and perpetuated by ignorance."

Last year, in its international newsletter distributed to patients, physicians and researchers, the Narcolepsy & Sleep Disorders organization called GHB "one of the few apparent success stories in the recent history of narcoleptic drug treatments. It has been extensively studied with some individuals having used the drug with good results for over 14 years." Stating that there were few reports of GHB prior to 1990 when it was a legally available over-the-counter drug with printed warnings and dosages and produced by reputable manufacturers, the organization said that its members were not allowed to attend and present evidence at an Oakland FDA-sponsored conference on GHB use in Northern California while the GHB-banning bill was being considered by the Legislature.

And one local expert believes that the effort to ban GHB has made the problem worse, rather than better, driving people away from established companies to underground manufacturers--and to new compounds.

"One of the things I predicted, in the face of the government's war on GHB, was that alternatives would quickly emerge into the marketplace," writes Steven Wm. Folkes, executive director of the Menlo Park-based Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute and a self-professed GHB user.

ACKNOWLEDGING THE MANY reported problems associated with GHB use, GHB advocates on the Internet blame them both on what they call "misuse" and on the government crackdown. One writes: "The problem is drunk teeny boppers take 10 times an adult dosage when they are already waxed. No wonder they pass out. GHB is NOT to be mixed with alcohol. Therein lie most of the problems. The rest come because the FDA has forced people to make it at home rather than buying quality professionally made GHB."

And because GHB is a chemical that naturally exists in the body, there is no telling how many of the problems attributed to the drug actually come from its illegal use. Last month, Alameda County law enforcement officials were investigating illegal use of GHB as the possible cause of the death of a 13-year-old Hayward boy after a small amount of the drug was found in his body. "But the amount of GHB that was found ... is consistent with the amount that can be found naturally in the body," a coroner's spokesperson told the San Francisco Chronicle. "As a result," the newspaper concluded, "officials are still unsure exactly how [the youth] died."

But there is one thing that law enforcement officials, government drug regulators and GHB advocates all agree on: At unknown dosages or ingested along with other drugs or mixed with unknown additives or alcohol, GHB can be deadly. Particularly vulnerable are youthful participants in all-night rave dances, where party drugs are often taken together and passed around without knowledge of their content or effects.

As one young Bay Area woman warned teenagers in an email circulated this month on the Internet, "For all of you out there that think G is okay, think again before you and your friends take it! I was at a party last weekend that was flooded with G. ... People kept throwing up after taking it. ... I know this may piss some of you off, but if you want to live dangerously, that's your prerogative. I'm a mother, and I plan on living to see my son grow."

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From the November 24-December 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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