The Talking Drug
Photo by Jack GouldEverybody's talking about GHB about its function as a "party drug" a "new synthetic weight-loss drug" a "nightclub sex drug" a "new designer drug" a "lethal drug" a "dangerous synthetic-steroid drug" and a "killer aphrodisiac" but we still don't know what the hell it does except that saying it makes us feel like we're really building a connection with you our friends and readers right here really relating you know like (is it hot in here?) just saying "GHB" gets us beyond that social stuff about roles and status and hierarchy and we're just here you and me or rather all of us . . . Someday, maybe, we'll all live in a world in which there is no dizziness, nausea, vomiting, weakness, convulsions, loss of peripheral vision, confusion, agitation, hallucination, slowed respiration, unconsciousness, coma, date rape and death. Oh, and no painful nighttime leg cramps. While we're at it, imagine life without knee-jerk newspaper, radio and TV reports; endless Internet arguments; informational FDA "talk papers"; patronizing congressional hearings; quick-to-criminalize-life state legislatures; and skulking undercover narcs. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.
Meanwhile, I just try to be grateful for the blessings of the real-world moment, which as of about a week ago included the fact that I can finally pronounce "gamma-hydroxybutyrate." And you know what? You can pronounce it, too, if you dare. C'mon, try it. Don't be afraid. Lots of people are saying it. Yeah, it's a little weird at first, but you'll end up loving it. There's nothing to worry about. Look at me: I'm saying it—gamma-hydroxybutyrate, gamma-hydroxybutyrate, gamma-hydroxybutyrate—and you don't see me freaking out. But let me tell you: inside, I am fuckin' buzzin'!
Who knows what it means? For that matter, who says we really have to get all caught up and bogged down in definitions? Probably not most of the people who actually take gamma-hydroxybutyrate. Probably not most of the people who curse it. They're more apt to call it "GHB" or "scoop" or "liquid ecstasy" or just plain "G" or a "controlled substance" or a "felony" or a "colorless, odorless, crapshoot with your life" or—well, I could go on and on. But, again, why? Why do that when I can now, finally, say the real thing—gamma-hydroxybutyrate—and when saying it feels SO . . . DAMN . . . GOOD?
Beyond the fact that the experience is so bodily and mentally pleasant, everything has seemed so connected since I started going around pronouncing "gamma-hydroxybutyrate." Last week, I was calling all over Orange County saying it, and everybody just seemed so cheerful and helpful. In ways I hadn't experienced in a long, long time, people seemed to know exactly where I was coming from. It was like we suddenly all had our own secret, personal code. We understood.
"Gamma-hydroxybutyrate," I'd say into the receiver.
"Isn't that the date-rape drug?" whoever was on the other end of the line would usually respond. "Isn't that the drug that all the young people are getting high on and passing out and even dying from at raves and nightclubs?"
"Well . . . yes! Yes, I guess it is!"
And we'd go on to have a wonderful conversation, really relating to each other, building a fellowship on the foundation of this new common bond, encompassing the whole Magical Mystery Tour of human emotion and experience—from love to fear, from chemistry to hyperbole. We were in tune! I could hear a synchrony. It happened again and again, and to think it all began with the utterance of a 20-letter, eight-syllable hyphenate (all together now): gamma-hydroxybutyrate.
But at the end of the day—and it takes a good 24 hours of practice to get the word really be-bop-a-lula-ing out of your mouth—there's something about gamma-hydroxybutyrate that's still hard to say. That is: What's the big deal?
Ben is a strapping, 25-year-old general contractor from an out-of-county beach town who comes to OC—a Weekly staffer found him just before the bouncers evicted him from the Boogie in Anaheim for all but passing out at his table—not only to pronounce gamma-hydroxybutyrate, but to ingest it. He makes gamma-hydroxybutyrate at home; then he mixes it with water and sips it from mini water bottles, measuring out doses in the bottle caps.
"What's the big deal with gamma-hydroxybutyrate, Ben?" I asked.
"It's a mood enhancer," Ben replied, his answer as transcendentally meaningful as it was blessedly short-winded. "Whatever you're feeling, it makes it stronger."
And, you know, that ishow it feels! Because I used to be confused about gamma-hydroxybutyrate. But then I started talking about it—just talking about it—and now I'm very confused.
Last week, I was even saying gamma-hydroxybutyrate to a cop—to a couple of 'em, actually—and the next thing I knew, we were communing as if we were connected by the same thin, umbilical-blue line. And nothing we said sounded as if the future would bring us anything but closer together.
"We are seeing this stuff all around our city," said Sergeant Leo Jones of the Irvine Police Department's narcotics division. "We are seeing it among adults in our nightclubs and youths under the influence on our streets. It has come and gone in popularity during the 1990s, and now it's back again—and we are taking it on. Any time we hear about it, we attack it. But I'm afraid we're going to see another explosion of this stuff."
Lacing a conversation with even a little mention of gamma-hydroxybutyrate can really get you yapping, and Jones and I were on a roll. For a while, we were talking about a predawn April 18 raid by the Irvine P.D. and state Alcoholic Beverage Control officers on the Metropolis nightclub at University Center, where four people were arrested, including club owner Jon Hanour. "They were actively involved in possessing, selling and distributing GHB in there," Jones charged. (Metropolis was subsequently closed on May 3.) Awhile later, we were talking about a May 22 incident at the Northwood Center shopping center, where four teenagers spending their Saturday afternoon together began behaving so erratically that somebody called the cops, who summoned the paramedics. The kids were briefly hospitalized and then released to their parents. The incident was blamed on their ingestion of gamma-hydroxybutyrate, which one of them had reportedly acquired at a rave party the night before.
"We are actively targeting this stuff, absolutely," Jones said. "The rave parties and some nightclubs are certainly a historically interesting phenomenon, with their certain kind of music and dancing. But they also seem to have a significant amount of GHB use as another of their characteristics. That may be current and trendy and a fascinating social issue, but it is also a controlled substance—a felony just like heroin and cocaine—and when our undercover officers see it, they take it on in a heartbeat."
But you never know how saying gamma-hydroxybutyrate is going to affect a person. How do I reconcile the heart-to-heart between me and the police department with what happened when I dropped a little gamma-hydroxybutyrate into a communiqu with the people at UCI Medical Center in Orange? Spokeswoman Kim Pine was influenced by it for sure, exhibiting the usual friendly and cooperative spirit. In fact, she spent three days trying to find a doctor or specialist to talk about it, too, so we could get a deeper sense of what the substance is all about.
However, the UCI Medical Center experts weren't quite so swept away by mention of gamma-hydroxybutyrate. "We don't have anybody here who feels they are an expert on it in any way," Pine finally reported disappointedly. "They just don't know much about it. It's like, somebody really needs to study it. But then again, it's not like we're seeing a rash of people coming in that are high on it or anything."
And then, just before we said goodbye, reluctant to let the moment go, Pine said: "Next time, maybe you could do a story about pancreatic transplants. We're doing those. At least I could find someone to talk to you about it."
A reference to gamma-hydroxybutyrate in a phone call to the Santa Ana headquarters of the Orange County Health Care Agency's drug- and alcohol-abuse services evoked another bad trip.
"If you want to find out the properties of the drug, you can probably do that on the Internet," said an agitated spokeswoman. "And we have no information whether GHB is on the rise in Orange County. In fact, we have no information to provide. And I don't want any of this quoted."
Well, she wasn't going to mess up my high. "You mean, you don't want it quoted that you don't have any information about gamma-hydroxybutyrate?" I asked her with blank innocence—admittedly a ruse so I could deviously slip another mention of it into our conversation. And it worked.
She chuckled pleasantly. "No, you can say that," she conceded. "But maybe you ought to call back and talk to Bill Edelman."
Edelman, a division manager, was a little more susceptible to talk of gamma-hydroxybutyrate. He talked for a long time—on the record. But he wasn't much more illuminating. "I don't know anything about it," he began and then asked, "Is that a date-rape drug?"
The Internet isn't always the most reliable place to get information, but I went there as suggested, and here's a summary of what I found:
Gamma-hydroxybutyrate was discovered and first synthesized in the early 1960s by Dr. Henri-Marie Laborit, a Nobel Prize-nominated French physician. A decade earlier, Laborit had demonstrated that the drug chlorpromazine (known in the U.S. as Thorazine) could be used to suppress the symptoms of schizophrenia and other psychoses. Laborit received the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award—sometimes called the American Nobel—in 1957 for that work with chlorpromazine, which led to the elimination of "psychosurgery" (that is, prefrontal lobotomy) as a treatment for schizophrenia. Until his death in 1995 at age 81, Laborit continued to publish research about GHB. Over the years, GHB has been applied to such diverse purposes as an aid to childbirth, a therapy for alcohol and heroin withdrawal, and a treatment for narcolepsy.
For decades, GHB was sold legally in the U.S., mostly in health-food stores to bodybuilders who believed it helped them maximize their muscle mass. This has not been proved, however, and it is suggested that GHB's true appeal to bodybuilders may be the same thing that so many other people like about it: the way it makes them feel.
Gamma-hydroxybutyrate has both a euphoric and sedative effect, and it also frequently induces—uhh, how to put this—a release of inhibitions, an increase in sensuality, and a general sense of emotionality and interpersonal warmth.
"It makes you want to take your clothes off, get naked," said Sunny, a 24-year-old from an OC beach town. "It makes you horny."
"Like, I walked into a party recently, and some big meathead guy was on G, and he had his hands down his pants," she said. "Really. He had his Windbreaker-material pants down around his ankles, and his hand was in his pants, all horny and grabbing himself. And everybody was just watching him. I thought, 'Oh, my God, why doesn't somebody help him?' Finally, somebody got him to pull his pants up, and a couple of minutes later he was sleeping."
Sunny is skeptical about gamma-hydroxybutyrate's date-rape reputation. "A lot of times when people have a bad experience with G, they use that date-rape stuff as an excuse," Sunny says. "I know girls who get crazy, start dancing around and want to have sex, then realize what they did afterward and blame it on the G."
But Ben, the guy who was 86'd from the Boogie, isn't so sure.
"Back at the hotel that night, I gave a girl two capfuls of GHB," he said. "Fifteen minutes later, she was still really impatient to get high, and she was complaining that she didn't feel anything. She wanted me to give her more, and I did. An hour later, she was just completely passed out. I couldn't wake her for a couple of hours. Had she been with a not-so-nice person, she could easily have been taken advantage of. But everything turned out all right. The nice thing about GHB is that no matter how messed up you are, in about two hours the effects are totally wiped away. There is no headache or hangover."
So it metabolizes very quickly in the body, dosages and tolerances are unpredictable, and it can make you pass out. Hence its reputation as a date-rape drug and the suggestion that it can kill you. However, in testimony before Congress on March 11, Dr. Stephen Zukin, a division director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said, "The available data on the actual abuse of GHB and its associated consequences is largely anecdotal."
Nonetheless, many mainstream-media outlets have jumped on these volatile issues. GHB has been profiled as (1) a "party drug," (2) a "new synthetic weight-loss drug," (3) a "nightclub sex drug," (4) a "new designer drug," (5) a "lethal drug," (6) a "dangerous synthetic-steroid drug," (7) a "killer aphrodisiac," and the list goes on.
GHB's defenders say that since the substance naturally occurs in small amounts in the human brain and other body tissues, autopsies linking it to date rape and death—as was the case with a 17-year-old girl in Texas a couple of years ago—are drawing the wrong conclusions.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies have filed 15 Investigational New Drug reports, an early step in the expensive procedure necessary to market it legally as a medicine for (1) improving sleep patterns and maintaining daytime alertness in narcoleptic patients, (2) reducing schizophrenic symptoms, (3) stabilizing Parkinson's disease, (4) reducing nocturnal myoclonus (painful leg cramps at night), (5) improving memory problems, (6) stimulating natural growth-hormone release, (7) decreasing pain and improving sleep in fibromyalgic patients, (8) relieving symptoms associated with Huntington's chorea, (9) regulating muscle tone for dystonia musculorum deformans, (10) controlling tardive dyskinesia symptoms, (11) decreasing drug-withdrawal symptoms (alcohol and opiates), (12) decreasing hyperactivity and learning disabilities in children, (13) inducing sedation and tranquilization, and (14) relieving anxiety. Oh, and (15) lowering cholesterol.
On November 8, 1990, however, the FDA declared GHB a dangerous and illegally marketed drug with serious potential for abuse. This declaration referred to "more than 30" reports of "nausea, vomiting, severe respiratory problems, seizures and coma."
GHB is still available in Europe—over the counter in some countries; by prescription in others—but it is becoming more and more illegal in America. Twenty-two states have criminalized it (including this one), with about half of those reclassifying it as a Schedule I substance, the most serious. In California, gamma-hydroxybutyrate is now a Schedule II drug, but its criminality level has been raised to a felony, just like cocaine and heroin. Since then, the government has obtained 33 GHB-related convictions nationwide.
It's still legal to say "gamma-hydroxybutyrate," though, and when I said it to FDA spokeswoman Laura Bradbard, her response was typically effusive.
"The problem is getting worse," she said. "It's not just GHB anymore. As we have cracked down on that, people have turned to substances with GBL [gamma-butyrolactone], which converts to GHB in the body, and BD [butanediol], which can be found in such products as Revitalize Plus, Serenity, Enliven, SomatoPro, Thunder Nectar and Weight Belt Cleaner. In particular, BD has been declared a Class I Health Hazard, which means it contains a potentially life-threatening risk."
How many people total have died from these substances during the 1990s?
"It's a little difficult to come up with a total," Bradbard said. "We know of three deaths that have been attributed to it—in Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida—and 122 adverse-health effects."
Comparatively, hundreds die every year from reactions to over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin.
"The real issue here is that products are being sold in which consumers are misled," said Bradbard. "They think they are buying a safe product for weight loss, bodybuilding or sleep, when they are actually purchasing floor stripper in various strengths. If you don't die, you will probably wish you had. It can put you into a coma and induce vomiting. As anyone knows, falling asleep and throwing up are not good things."
Go ahead; try it. Go into, oh, an Orange County nightclub, for example, and say it: "gamma-hydroxybutyrate." In some cases, you may have to begin your outreach with a few of the word's more vulgar synonyms—"GHB," "G," "scoop" and the like—if you want to be best understood. And a little patience goes a long way toward maximizing your enjoyment of the experience. Say "gamma-hydroxybutyrate" too soon or in combination with other highs (such as conversation, music, dancing or taking a leak), and it can spoil them. In fact, for maximum pleasure, it's best to say, "gamma-hydroxybutyrate" just before you plan to leave—especially if you never intend to come back.
Say it to the doorman, the bouncer, the bartender, that guy in the bathroom who keeps flushing the toilet and staring down at the swooshing water, the girl on the dance floor who is liking you a lot more than she ought to: gamma-hydroxybutyrate! Then stand back and wait for the rush.
"In most Orange County clubs, the owners and their security are so anal and tight that they will 86 you for life just for talking about it," said Altan Asku, a 30-year-old who promotes shows at Tropics and the Rhino Room in Huntington Beach and at the Shark Club in Costa Mesa. "They'll pat you down and ask a million questions, pretty much like a modern-day Gestapo."
Who needs the Gestapo? Fact is in circumstances such as this, it's quite possible that the person you will be saying, "gamma-hydroxybutyrate" to is someone from an actual, modern-day law-enforcement organization.
"We have a ton of undercover narcotics people out there," acknowledged Lieutenant Tom Garner of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, who turned out to be one heckuva guy a few minutes after I phoned him and slipped some gamma-hydroxybutyrate into our conversation. "I can't give away too much about their tactics, but they are definitely out there trying to buy from people. They are looking for them."
Asku agrees that law enforcement has infiltrated Orange County nightspots. "Lately, I've been seeing agents everywhere," he said. "They're cracking down so hard that it's impossible to miss them. They don't look like the regular patrons, and you see the same ones everywhere, coming in and out of the clubs all night long."
But Asku suspects that these agents may be looking for something beyond gamma-hydroxybutyrate. "I think it's another reason to crack down on clubs in Orange County," he said. "I think that's always the case. It's been the general pattern of the past 20 years. Recently, we've seen it at Metropolis, and then it expanded to Club Rubber. The conditional-use permits are already so restrictive—in some places, you're not even allowed to dance after 10 p.m."
Asku isn't saying that there isn't gamma-hydroxybutyrate out there, but he maintains that talk about it far exceeds its actual presence. "Mostly, what I hear are rumors," he said. "Every now and then, I see a guy or girl pass out, get taken outside, get revived and leave. I'm not talking about the people who've had too many shooters; they don't get so lifeless when they pass out, and they don't revive so well—without the hangover—when they come to. But I've been out on the club scene seven nights a week for 10 years, and I don't witness it firsthand all that much."
Asku didn't even get to do much witnessing the time he actually took some gamma-hydroxybutyrate. "I took one tablespoon of it, and I passed out right away," he recalled. "It was the only time I tried it. I was curious. But the only thing I had to show for it was the bump on my head from where I hit the floor."
Sunny doesn't do gamma-hydroxybutyrate anymore, either. "I don't know," she said with a shrug. "I guess I've probably outgrown it."
Me, too. Yet for all the positive, euphoric, sensual and vicarious effects of saying, "gamma-hydroxybutyrate" with all the cops, health experts, night owls and the rest, I can't help but wonder about its potential for abuse. I mean, can you talk about it too much?
"Now I just watch other people," Sunny said. "And talk about it."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.