I Want a New Drug

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"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.

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Emma Trelles