By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"All I remember is that I was blacking out, and I couldn't move. My feet went numb, and every time I'd try to stand up, I would just go down again." Nelson is 25 years old, and his six-foot frame fills half of a velour love seat in the living room of a small Hollywood apartment. On the coffee table before him, beside a glossy magazine and butt-ridden ashtray, waits a plastic bottle filled about a quarter of the way with a clear liquid that looks and smells like water. It is not.It's GHB, gamma hydroxybutric acid, an illegal and unpredictable drug that depresses the central nervous system. Nelson is explaining how it once spun him into a G-hole, a period of vomiting and intermittent unconsciousness that lasted a total of an hour and a half. "Finally I went to the bathroom, put some water on my face, and it was " he snaps his fingers, "gone."
While a little bit of GHB might make you feel sleepy, tranquil, or induce a slow-rolling euphoria, too much can cause your heart to slow precariously. You might lose consciousness or stop breathing. Or die. Most users know these risks. They've either endured them or watched friends and strangers convulse or lose hours tumbling in and out of consciousness.
Since its discovery three decades ago, GHB has wound a twisted path from legal anesthetic to outlaw opiate. When it reached South Florida in the late '90s, it entered the club scene as an illicit companion to Ecstasy and the by-then scarce Rohypnol. But unlike its chemical compatriots, GHB has since crept outside club culture. While it's still dropped by ravers and rapists, the drug has begun seducing college students, adults, men, women, gays, and straights alike with its promise of three or four hours of chemical joy.
As its risks become more widely known, state and federal lawmakers are stepping up efforts to curtail its creeping growth. Under a Florida law that will kick in this October, GHB traffickers can face first-degree felony charges and up to 30 years in prison. Third-degree felony charges will await those arrested for possession, like former FSU kicker and Oakland Raiders first-round draft pick Sebastian Janikowski, who was busted with GHB in a parking lot outside of a Tallahassee bar last month. If found guilty, Janikowski could pay up to $5000 in fines and spend five years in jail.
But the drug's prevalence remains murky, with law enforcement hard-pressed to discern the breadth of its use. The medical community has responded slowly, uncertain how to treat GHB addicts and often failing even to detect the drug in hospitalized patients because it can leave the body without a trace within hours of ingestion.
Unlike cocaine or heroin, GHB doesn't funnel through international drug cartels in presealed and measured packages. GHB mixers cook their goods in South Florida's kitchens and bathtubs, following recipes glommed off the Internet or borrowed from friends. They eyeball measurements. They wing it.
And they're not the only ones. Users have little knowledge of its chemical components, and each dose offers one of many roulettelike effects. GHB fans also spout their own misinformation, with some lauding the drug's ability to burn fat and build muscle, and others claiming it enhances appetite and sex.
The confusion is the rub, because what's most potent about GHB is its ability to deceive, proffering both delight and havoc as it burrows its way deeper into South Florida's drug culture."I was watching this thing on TV, and they had this kid, and he's all fucked up, and he was brain-dead. Somebody gave him a water bottle, and he drank it. But only half of it was water. The other half was G," says Ally, age 29, who's sitting on the matching couch across from Nelson. She crosses one leg over the other, and leans into a plush cushion. "He's alive, but he can't talk, and he can't move. He's all like bbbbbbbbbrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr," she says, rolling her head around to illustrate.Ally and Nelson are college grads who have jobs and cars and apartments. They're middle-class, seemingly well adjusted folk, too old to be ravers but perhaps still too young to give up the occasional brain change.
Ally stands up to snap off lights. "I don't do any drug that I haven't researched," she offers while stuffing her small purse with an ID, money, and lipstick.
I'm not reassured. We've congregated at her place to plan our evening, which revolves around us taking G. Unlike my blasé companions, I'm sitting on the edge of my seat, laughing too loud at stories that aren't funny, playing with the silver rings on my fingers.
I play it cool and ask Nelson how much GHB I should take. Determining the perfect dose is a tricky business. GHB occasionally comes in pill or powder form, but typically it's a clear and odorless liquid. The effects can be random, depending upon body weight, other chemicals, and a user's own tolerance. It doesn't help that the people now making it aren't licensed chemists working in regulated labs.
"We'll start you off with a cap," Nelson says, unscrewing the lid of the water bottle. "Then we'll wait a while and see how you react. If you're OK, you can take some more."
One capful is all I'm interested in taking. We troop out to the car after deciding to dose outside a Fort Lauderdale nightclub, the kind that's resplendent with velvet curtains, ambient lighting, the relentless pulse of electronica. On the way, we pull into a 7-Eleven. Inside, people are lining up at the cashier with their own Saturday night favors: cases of beer, wine, smokes -- the games have begun.
We buy juice and a minipack of Uptime. The juice makes G a tad more palatable; Nelson describes it as the most disgusting thing he's ever tasted. The Uptime, an herbal two-pill pack containing ginseng and guano extract, is to keep us from nodding off.
Before we park the car outside the club, Nelson tells us a few more scare stories involving friends, loss of motor skills, and unconsciousness. Thankfully no one dies at the end of his tales.
But Nelson also says how wonderful G makes him feel: confident, positive, certain that all is right with the world. He tells us how great sex is with his girlfriend when they take it, how he sometimes downs a few caps, stays home and watches nature's miracles on the Discovery Channel, then sleeps deeply at the end of the night. His face is jubilant while he speaks.
"But it tastes like shit," he adds, after he pours a capful of GHB and a splash of orange juice into a coffee mug. I down it. The juice does little to mask what tastes like salty poison: a blend akin to oyster drippings and Raid. Forget what the media says: GHB is not tasteless. Nelson swigs his cap-and-a-half and grimaces.
I hear Ally in the backseat after she swallows her dose. "Oohhhhh. Oh my god. It tastes like ass." She groans, then makes retching noises. "Anyone want an Altoid?" she asks. It's 11:11 p.m., and the ride is soon to start.G, Liquid X, Scoop, Goop, EZLay, Georgia Home Boy, Grievous Bodily Harm, Salty Water. The slang for GHB varies as widely as the contradictions about its alleged benefits and its known dangers. The drug was first synthesized by a French physician, Dr. H. Laborit, in the early '60s and actually exists in small amounts within the human body. Laborit's research led him and others to hail the drug's potential as an antidote for alcoholism, an aid to childbirth, a sleep aid, a treatment for narcolepsy, and a stimulant for the release of growth hormones within the body. Laborit so believed in GHB's benefits that he took the drug regularly for the final three decades of his life and died at age 81. In Europe the drug's still used as an anesthetic, but the U.S. medical community all but abandoned GHB research in the '60s because of myriad side effects, including seizures and the drug's inability to offer pain relief during surgery.GHB reared its head again in the late '70s, when a Japanese study reported an increase in growth hormones in six men who were fed the drug intravenously. Growth hormone output typically heightens during REM sleep, which GHB enhances. Bodybuilders claimed that G not only provided them with the quality sleep they needed to help muscle growth but also increased appetites and helped them load up on muscle-feeding calories.
Soon after that, the study found its way to the lay public, and the drug began to appear in health food stores as a dietary supplement marketed to athletes and strength-training enthusiasts. There were safer drugs to increase growth hormones, but the science hardly mattered, because the perception was out there: G was a great way to build muscle.
Since GHB was marketed as a dietary supplement, the burden fell upon the Food and Drug Administration to prove its perils. In 1990, after a flurry of reports of GHB-induced illnesses from poison-control centers and emergency rooms around the country, the FDA yanked the substance off retail shelves and declared it unsafe -- except under FDA-approved, physician-supervised protocols.
Despite the FDA's recall, or perhaps because of it, a new breed of supplements crept into the market. Sporting names like Blue Nitro, Revivarant, Longevity, and Invigorate, these analogs contained the still legal GBL (gamma hydroxybutic acid), which can also be found in paint strippers and other solvents. When ingested, GBL is metabolized by the body into GHB and offers the same euphoric effect. And the same hazards. In 1999 the FDA reported at least 55 health crises connected to GBL-related products, including unconsciousness, seizures, vomiting, assisted breathing, and death.
Last year the FDA asked the companies manufacturing GBL supplements both to recall them voluntarily and to stop making them.
But GHB and GBL still sell to those deft enough to find them, and GHB runs cheap: a mere ten-spot for an ounce. Budget-minded users find the price right, especially when compared to other drugs like Ecstasy or alcohol, both of which are often mixed with G. Since booze is another central nervous system depressant, combining it with GHB can strip inhibitions and render one unconscious, two reasons why sexual predators use it surreptitiously to lace the beverages of victims in clubs and at parties."With G, it's so easy to cross that line. Then your mind is gone," says Laura. Her experiences with GHB began recreationally in the late '90s and ended at a small get-together at her apartment, where two men she barely knew had sex with her while she slipped in and out of consciousness."I went into my roommate's closet to get a nightgown, and he came in the room, and I blacked out. When I'd come to, he was having sex with me. I shoved him off, got up, and blacked out again," says Laura. She's sitting on the patio of an Intracoastal home she's watching for an out-of-town friend. Behind her, a pink hibiscus bobs in the midday breeze, and a lagoonlike pool fills most of the deck. She still sounds shocked as she recalls what happened two years ago.
"Then I went into my room, and the other guy was there, and he started having sex with me. Each time I kept coming to, one of them was on top of me. It was traumatic, the most horrible thing ," she remembers.
Laura was first introduced to G through a friend who lauded it as a fat-burner. Laura claims she lost 20 pounds in three weeks after starting daily dosages. She also used it as a substitute for the painkillers she'd take for her migraines. "But then I liked it a little toooo much," she says. "It would make me feel euphoric, just really, really good. And I couldn't get it anywhere. It was really hard to find."
So she became resourceful and purchased a GHB kit on the Internet from somewhere in Canada. The $200 kit came with GHB's two essential and legal chemicals: gamma butryolactone, a commonly used solvent, and sodium hydroxide, also known as ordinary lye. Also lifted from the Internet was her recipe, which she still has jotted down in an old journal. She lights a Marlboro, hunches over, and reads the recipe out loud in a sing-songy voice.
"You have to have activated charcoal, a gallon of distilled water, white vinegar, a one-liter soda bottle, three metal spoons, and pH test strips. You know, with color chart?"
The pH strips are crucial and are used after combining the gamma butryolactone, lye, and distilled water in a glass dish. Home-mixers dip the strips into the mixture and then scrutinize the accompanying pH color chart, which ranges from 1 to 10. Venture too high on the scale, and the sodium hydroxide will dissolve skin, hair, clothing, paint, and even a few plastics.
"You have to get to pH 7. That's neutral. If it's not, don't touch it. Just throw it out. It could really burn your insides; it'll kill you," she warns.
Laura popped her chemical casserole into the oven at 180 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, with a shot of vinegar thrown in afterward, until the pH strip tested at 7. Then she let it cool to room temperature, poured it into the soda bottle, and added some of the charcoal. The rest of the bottle she filled with water, shaking the brew every ten minutes for an hour and a half, then poured it through a coffee filter to sift out the gunk.
The final product was too unsavory and concentrated to swallow, so she'd dilute it with grape Kool-Aid. She says the gallon would last her about three weeks on average, and she'd take capfuls from the moment she awoke to right before she fell asleep. She also sold her goods to friends. A full 16-ounce water bottle went for $80, but she'd sell half and even quarter bottles for $10 an ounce. Each sale was accompanied by her handwritten caveats about potency, dosage, and avoiding booze. She never sold to anyone she didn't know and never without "instructions."
"I had seen what happened to some people, and I was afraid. I didn't want that to happen to any of my friends. I didn't want them hurting themselves or passing out in the car," she says. Her high times ended after using the drug for a brief six months.
Laura's recollection of her assaults is patchy. She remembers pushing the men off her, asking them to stop, saying that she didn't want to do this. She remembers waking up the next morning with knees so skinned and bloodied, she was forced to wrap them in bandages. She doesn't recall how they got that way, but she still has a small scar on each one. The experience terrified her, and she cut ties with the people with whom she dosed. And with GHB.
"That pretty much ended my going out to clubs all the time and to parties. After that night I poured it all out. I had half a gallon left, but I told myself never again," she says. "I never touched it again."This past February President Clinton signed the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000. Farias was a 17-year-old teenager who died in her sleep in 1996 after someone allegedly slipped GHB into her Sprite at a Texas club. A 15-year-old from Michigan, Reid died in January 1999 after four males allegedly poisoned the ninth grader at a party.The act added GHB to other Schedule 1 substances, like MDMA (Ecstasy), heroin, LSD, and marijuana, all of which federal officials have deemed drugs with high abuse potential. The law still allows for ongoing research into GHB's potential as a treatment for narcolepsy. The act also made it a federal crime to possess, make, or sell GHB or GBL, with up to 20 years' incarceration waiting for infractors and life sentences for those linked to GHB deaths.
Still, the legislative deterrent is not enough. At least not in Florida, where the numbers of GHB-related date rapes, overdoses, and trips to the emergency room are steadily climbing. So much so that two years ago the state took its own stance and ranked GHB a controlled substance along with cocaine and amphetamines. While Florida's drug czar, Jim McDonough, puts the number of statewide deaths caused by the singular use of GHB at 8, he claims that, in more than 70 cases, GHB or other club drugs were found during autopsies over the last three years. McDonough says the figures are underreported. One reason could be that GHB is not easily detectable in routine toxicology screenings: Emergency rooms often miss the drug's presence because it leaves the body in approximately 12 hours.
"Because this wasn't a drug of concern for so many years, there's not a lot of data," he claims and adds that health professionals weren't systematically looking for the drug's presence in blood or urine because for years there was little to no knowledge of its deadliness. "When I first asked medical examiners [about it], there was a silence," adds McDonough.
"That's what's insidious about club drugs," he says. "One: We didn't recognize the problem. Two: It's growing like top seed. Three: There's a climate, a belief by people that these drugs are benign. Take it from a guy who's looked at the death reports; it's not."Thirteen minutes after dosing, warmth rushes up my left arm. My fingertips are tingling. House music pours over the club in smooth and melodic surges. A mustachioed man pounds a set of glossy congas. Nelson's saying something to me, but I can't listen. Don't want to. I'm mesmerized by the gelled lights sweeping the floor, glinting off the mirrored ball twirling from the ceiling. He disappears. Not sure where Ally went.Doesn't matter. The flash of heat has spread to my neck, my head. I'd like to lay down on a soft blanket of grass right now, maybe have someone bring me a cold piece of fruit.
The odd thought startles me, and I turn to find my companions. But my legs aren't cooperating. I want to walk, but I can't seem to lift my feet. I manage to shuffle in place for a moment. A tiny merry-go-round has geared itself up inside my stomach, and it's throwing me off balance. Yet it's a tight and pleasurable dizziness, a measured swooping that's traveled from my extremities to my bellybutton. And I like it enough to start laughing, drawing the attention of the young stud-boy guarding one of the club's many velvet ropes. He stares at me.
I lean against a railing, take out my notebook, and try to write, but what appears on the page looks like waves. I feel wavy. Wavy gravy.
More laughing, but I'm not sure if it's out loud or inside my head. The club guy inches closer to me. Where's Ally? I'd asked her not to leave me alone. As if on cue, she touches my elbow. I grab on to her jersey shirt and let her lead us to the corner.
"Has it hit you yet?" she asks me. She's all smiles. We pay each other compliments, giggle, decide to take a spin around this fine club. What in the world was I so worried about? I'm floating. Ally and I take a tour of candles, stopping at the largest to breathe in its apricot scent. Fact is, neither one of us can find a thing wrong with our surroundings. I glance at my watch. 11:55 pm. It feels as if we arrived hours and hours ago.
When a woman wearing a ruby-red dress glides by us, we celebrate her perfume. I want to follow her, ask her where she purchased it, tell her of the ready bliss it's offered us. Ally steps away and a man brushes by me on his way to a sequin-studded lounge in the back. I'd like to follow him too, and I take a step in his direction.
But I hear Ally's voice from what sounds like the end of a tunnel asking me for something. I take a final look at the lounge, then turn to see what she wants. It occurs to me that, if the devil were to appear in a puff of crimson smoke and beckon me with one hoof, I'd follow him too.Since 1997 GHB has claimed 19 lives in Florida. In comparison to cocaine (more than 1000 in 1999) and heroin (206 in 1999), the numbers seem paltry, hardly enough to alarm law-enforcement agencies, which have plenty on their plates with Colombian heroin and cocaine flooding through Florida's ports. Even state agencies fail to rank GHB as one of the top four drugs plaguing Florida; cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine top the list. And recently a DEA spokesperson claimed that GHB was not at the top of that agency's priorities.At the Broward Sheriff's Office Crime Lab, forensic chemist Randy Hilliard concedes that 80 percent of the seized drugs tested turn out to be cocaine, mostly crack, with marijuana coming in a close second. The lab's drug analysis unit serves as many as 45 police agencies and processes about 12,000 cases a year. "GHB is part of that, but it's such a minor part. If we see it maybe once a month, we've got a lot," says Hilliard.
But he's certain that G use is prevalent and that its most dangerous facet is its clandestine production, with dealers mixing too-potent dosages or carelessly substituting ingredients. Hilliard believes he sees little of the drug because the people selling or using it do a good job at not getting caught. Those who are usually get snagged by accident when officers pull over suspected DUIs and find GHB instead.
G users claim that recent busts in Pompano Beach and Boca Raton have spooked other sellers and made the drug harder to find. But users are scoring somewhere. At Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, health care professionals claim to treat GHB-related illnesses every weekend. "Most of the ODs typically arrive between midnight and 5 a.m.," says Joe Spillane, a pharmacologist who works at Broward General and also teaches at Nova Southeastern University. He adds that the hospital's seen about 50 cases of GHB overdose in 1999 alone, with at least 6 deaths recorded in Broward County.
"To have that many deaths from a brand-new drug is impressive. It's a particularly high number in relation to the rest of the country," says Spillane, who pegs deaths nationwide at 49 to date as reported to the DEA. He suspects the true toll is probably higher, because many medical examiners still don't test for the drug's presence, although Broward County's do.
Since he started to gather stats on GHB, Spillane's noted at least three cases of severe GHB withdrawal. Symptoms include agitation, elevated vital signs, and tremors, but he adds that auditory and visual hallucinations are not uncommon, with patients horrified and unable to sleep. "The problem is we don't have anything to treat it with. Benzodiazepine is used to treat alcohol withdrawals, and it works very well. But it doesn't work with GHB," says Spillane.
He's also witnessed the usual overdose reactions, which he says are further complicated by street myths that discourage medical attention if a user slips into unconsciousness. Many GHB and GBL users believe that, unless other drugs or alcohol have been taken, the best bet is to sleep it off. Uninformed medical personnel, hospital expenses, and painful methods of arousal are all mentioned by users as reasons to skip the 911 call.
"People need to know this: The only treatment is to get the person to an emergency room. What they need is airway management," says Spillane. One of the problems with GHB is that a user might relax so much that his tongue could block his airway. If he vomits he could choke and die. Typically a GHB overdose is treated through intubation, and although most people regain consciousness in three to four hours, Spillane cautions those betting on it. "You're taking a big chance if you try to sleep it off. Sure, [you'll ] probably wake up eventually, but do you want to be the one person who doesn't?"Rule #1: No alcohol. "Drinking on G is a no-no," says Michael, a 33-year-old professional in the travel industry who takes the drug recreationally. He's standing in the middle of his teal-painted bedroom. Shirts, jeans, Calvin Klein underwear, and bulky black Sketchers litter the carpet and bed, where an open-mouthed suitcase lies. Michael's packing for a weekend getaway to Orlando with his boyfriend. His most precious cargo is four glass vials of GHB and fourteen hits of Ecstasy. He likes to use the two together. State prosecutors and police call it polydrug use, but Michael calls it fabulous. He has his routine down pat. First he takes a tablet of Ecstasy. When that starts winding down, he gulps a shot of G. "I tell the people I'm with, "OK, my stuff isn't working, I don't feel like dancing, I'll be back in about ten minutes with my new mood modifier,'" he says and holds up the Ziploc bag housing his stash.
"Then I'll buy a cranberry juice or a Coke, go to the bathroom, and make my own cocktail. When I come back, things are aaaalllll different," he says, laughing. "I feel really sexual, crazy, I want to dance. You just feel really alive and wonderful. It's what partying's all about."
Ecstasy is easier to score in clubs than GHB. The white- or pastel-color tabs can be stashed anywhere, in a Chap Stick tube, an M&M or Skittles bag, the foil of a cigarette box. Because G's usually sold in water bottles or small glass ampoules, carrying it in bulk is next to impossible, although some users opt for Visine bottles.
Rule #2: Know your dose. "I had a friend of mine who got it from a factory in Tennessee, but that supply's not coming in anymore. Now I get it here from people who make it," says Michael. The extent of his research is minute. When he buys, he discusses the batch's potency with his supplier. That's about it. If he's told the G is strong, he'll only take three-quarters of a cap. If it's weak or already diluted with water, he'll take more. For this weekend's getaway, he plans on taking all four vials, sharing sips with his boyfriend along the way.
"Isn't he cute?" he asks and stops packing for a minute to admire the photo floating on his computer's screen saver: a square-jawed, dimple-cheeked guy with thick lashes. "He doesn't need it like I do. Ecstasy alone doesn't work for me anymore. It's not enough. I like the feeling with G. You're just in the moment, having fun, and you're with other people who're feeling exactly the same way."
Rule #3: Wait a while before your next dose. Michael holds off for at least an hour and a half before dose number two. He learned the hard way what health care workers already know: A heavy dose of GHB can induce unrousable sleep. Even an extra thimbleful can be the difference between elation and illness. At a circuit party in Montreal, Michael found himself unable to stand or remain conscious, falling down at least twice facefirst on the floor. "People told me to sleep it off, but I thought that was a bad idea. So I used this railing to help me stand up, and I threw up all over it," he says.
Since he's only experienced this kind of blackout once in the two years he's been taking it, Michael's not perturbed by the memory. If it's harming his body, there's no physical sign of it. His slim physique is tanned and well toned, and if the way's he's bustling about his bedroom is any indication, he's more than energetic.
"I do it because it gives me what I want to feel," he adds. "Free."A young man sits slopped over the barstool beside me. His chin rests on the front of his ice-blue shirt, and every couple of minutes his blond head lolls back and forth. He moans. By 3:25 a.m. the evening's earlier charm has worn off. So has the GHB. Nelson's standing a few feet away from Ally and me. He surveys the packed and sweaty bodies grinding on the dance floor; the earlier upscale crowd has vanished, its place taken over by the glitter-smeared, drunk, and chain-smoking masses that seem to proliferate at this hour.
Nelson looks bored. So am I. My legs hurt. I'm tired of the early-morning techno that's battering my ears, and I'm tired of the kid next to me weaving in and out of my hair as he rides out his high. Mostly I'm tired of feeling sedated.
"Are you all right?" I ask my pseudoconscious neighbor. He doesn't respond, and now he's not moving at all. I check to make sure he's breathing and give his shoulder a little shove. His head snaps up as if lever-operated.
"Beeeautiful, man." He smiles at me with closed eyes. "Everyshing's good."
I touch his shoulder once again and wish him luck.
Fla Office of Drug Control