I Want a New Drug

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"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.

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Emma Trelles