It's a rainy Saturday night in late October, and despite a chilly wind blowing off the Hudson River, hundreds of men in tank tops and denim cutoffs are lining up outside the Roxy. Once inside the cavernous West Chelsea club, they line up again on a long stairway, then pass one by one through a metal detector and a pat search by a security guard.
Then, because of a new "liquid check" the club instituted this summer, another security guard makes them dispose of soda cans, water bottles, even cologne containers. He's not looking for bootleg CK One -- he's searching for GBL, a drug usually taken as a colorless, odorless liquid. Inside the body, it metabolizes into GHB, also known as "liquid ecstasy," which produces a mild euphoria in moderate doses and complete unconsciousness in larger ones. It is suspected to have killed Splash owner Harry Bartel in September and has sent hundreds of clubbers to local emergency rooms -- many unconscious, blue in the face, and even choking on their own vomit. "It's sad that it's come to the point where we have to take away cologne and eye drops," says Roxy general manager Jason McCarthy. But the club is so concerned that it hands out flyers on both gay and straight nights warning of the dangers of GBL and GBL-related products like RenewTrient, Revivarent, and Blue Nitro, which are often sold as muscle-building supplements. Those caught using the drug are photographed and permanently banned from the club. But there's no point in photographing those who OD, McCarthy says wryly. "When you deal with a GHB overdose, you remember their face anyway."
GHB -- Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate -- first became a fixture at raves and gay "circuit parties" in the early nineties. The FDA declared the drug unsafe and illegal to market in 1990, and several states have banned it because of its use as a date-rape drug. But neither the FDA nor local law enforcement has paid as much attention to GBL (gamma-butyrolactone). A chemical "precursor" to GHB, it produces identical effects -- a depression of the central nervous system that can result in an ecstasylike high or, in the case of an overdose, a complete blackout. And until this January, when the FDA issued a recall of products containing GBL, it was sold in heath-food stores as a dietary supplement.
GHB is still getting all the headlines -- especially after the January GHB-related death of Michigan 15-year-old Samantha Reid led Congress to take action -- but the GBL problem has quietly been getting worse. It hasn't received much attention because the drug is indistinguishable from GHB in autopsies and medical examinations. But GBL is openly sold under various names on the Internet, and clubbers who take a packaged GBL product like RenewTrient often don't know it's as dangerous as GHB. "You'll hear people say, 'I don't do G; I do RenewTrient,' " says Roxy promoter Marc Berkley. "Some of my clients do GBL and have no idea it's identical to GHB," says Dr. Ron Winchel, a psychiatrist who's active in the gay community. "One took RenewTrient, got in the car, started to drive, and was arrested by the police because he was weaving on the road. He had no idea it was an intoxicating substance." And the easy availability of GBL means the problem is no longer confined to the hard-core club scene. "The straight community has been abusing GBL worse," McCarthy says. "Your average college student doesn't know how dangerous it is." Dr. Arlene Curry, an attending physician at St. Vincent's Hospital's emergency room, says the drug's casualties range from "club kids to conventiongoers." "It's not unusual to see an overdose a week," she says. Five years ago, admitting physicians would assume partyers with sudden respiratory problems had overdosed on heroin. Now they just assume they've overdosed on GHB or GBL.
A bill that will make GBL and GHB "Schedule 1" drugs subject to criminal penalties similar to those for cocaine and heroin passed the House of Representatives in October and awaits approval in the Senate. But GBL will likely prove difficult to stop. According to the DEA, "tens of thousands of metric tons are produced annually" for use as an industrial solvent that cleans circuit boards and degreases engines. (The bill would not affect those uses.) The FDA has also been slower to react to the spread of GBL. The agency is aware that companies replace "GBL" with its chemical name -- 2(3H)-furanone dihydro -- to avoid the agency's attention, according to a spokesperson. But when told by New York that the drug could be purchased over the Internet with a credit card for overnight delivery, the same spokesperson expressed shock.
"The relationship between a 'coma dose' and a 'party dose' can be just two to one . . . that's why people are passing out left and right."
Just how easy is it to buy GBL over the Internet? A Yahoo! search for "Blue Nitro" -- a popular packaged "dietary supplement" that contains GBL but was recalled by the FDA in January -- yields at least half a dozen sites that sell GBL under various other product names. Most sell it as a sleep aid, a stress reducer, or a supplement that stimulates muscle growth by releasing human growth hormone. Invigorating.com, the Internet storefront for the Queens-based company Scott Supplies, sells products called ReActive, Eclipse, Jolt, and GHgold -- liquids that all list 2(3H)-furanone dihydro as their primary ingredient. Healthyroad.com, owned by the Stamford, Connecticut-based Health Source, openly advertises the GBL product Jolt as "an excellent alternative for Blue Nitro."
With only a credit-card number, New York was able to purchase a two-ounce bottle of GHgold (advertised as "99.99% 2(3H) Furanone Di-hydro") from Invigorating.com; also purchased were a 180-capsule bottle of RenewTrient, a 2-ounce bottle of liquid Beta-Tech (another GBL product), and a 34-ounce bottle of EnLiven (which contains BD, another chemical precursor that metabolizes into GHB) from Healthyroad.com. Both sites also offer products in bulk. Both sell them online as well as by telephone -- an operator at Health Source even promised that Beta-Tech would be "purer, not watered down like Blue Nitro," and at no point did anyone ask about the age or intent of the purchaser. Both shipments arrived by UPS the next morning.