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.
Until legislation makes GBL and GHB Schedule 1 drugs, both are legal to possess in New York and most states, but the FDA considers them “illegally marketed unapproved drugs.” That means the agency can ask for an injunction against companies marketing GBL, seize their products, and file criminal charges against those responsible. Right now, though, neither GBL nor GHB is on the list of controlled substances in New York. “It takes a while for the legislature to keep up with the trends,” explains Bridget Brennan, special narcotics prosecutor for New York City. “For example, both ketamine and ecstasy were only recently added to the state’s list of controlled substances.”
Ecstasy made clubbers love one another, and ketamine (“special k”) made them zone out in the corner, but GBL and GHB are known mostly for causing blackouts – even in experienced drug users. Many people are unafraid to mix them with alcohol because they think of them as designer drugs like ecstasy and not central-nervous-system depressants like quaaludes. Some of what’s sold as GBL at clubs is actually “bathtub G” made by basement chemists who buy kits over the Internet and add paint thinner, cleaning agents, and furniture-polish remover, according to the FDA. Even in pure form, it’s extremely “dose-sensitive.” “The relationship between a ‘coma dose’ and a ‘party dose’ can be just two to one,” says Winchel. “That’s a very narrow range of error, and that’s why people are passing out left and right.”
Chris*, a raver who deals ecstasy and ketamine out of his West Village studio apartment, once drank a little too much GBL in a New York dance club and remembers “feeling really woozy and then trying to walk up a flight of stairs.” Then he blacked out, he says, “and woke up on the floor of the club’s security office.”
“It’s not pretty,” says the Roxy’s McCarthy of clubbers who overdose on GBL or GHB. “They turn purple; they stop breathing. It’s a difficult thing to baby-sit.” Curry agrees, noting that GBL- and GHB-overdose cases rushed into St. Vincent’s have a particularly horrifying quality. “They come in blue in the face or they’ve been discovered facedown in vomit,” she says. “Sometimes people are so out of it they have to be put on machines so they can breathe.”
Still, some clubbers remain unrepentant. “Mix it with ecstasy and you’re on cloud nine,” says Eric*, a twentysomething gay man who frequents the circuit-party scene. He boasts that he “never passes out” from GBL, but he makes a point of measuring it into a bottle to avoid drinking too much. Morris*, another circuit-party regular who uses GBL products like Beta-Tech to enhance his ecstasy high, actually says he’s happy about the FDA’s recall of Blue Nitro, because “it was too weak anyway.”
GHB is thought to occur naturally in the body, and both it and GBL may have legitimate medical uses. First synthesized by Dr. Henri Laborit, a French researcher studying the neurotransmitter GABA, GHB has been used in Europe as an insomnia medication and a childbirth aid. The FDA is currently investigating its use as a narcolepsy treatment.
There is also evidence that GHB helps build body mass. “It induces a longer period of unusually deep sleep called ‘slow-wave sleep,’ which is sleep you need to feel restored the next day and during which you produce growth hormone,” says Winchel. “Deeper sleep may facilitate better exercise and better outcome from exercise.”
In the eighties, “steroid queens would do a little to juice themselves up,” explains Berkley. “But then they noticed that if they did a little more, they’d get a euphoric buzz.” Later in the decade, clubbers caught on because it had one significant advantage over ecstasy, according to Berkley. “It’s like ecstasy – but with a hard-on.”
Dr. Ward Dean, the medical editor of the newsletter for the Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute, a Menlo Park, California-based organization that researches dietary supplements, argues that “GBL and GHB are the safest, most nontoxic, non-habit-forming sleep-inducing substances known to man.” Dean cites studies that prove GHB can effectively treat narcolepsy and accuses the FDA of hypocrisy for experimenting with GHB as a medication while crusading against it as a drug. Dean also blames the FDA for creating the GBL and GHB problem by recalling the drugs and thus putting the trade in the hands of amateur pharmacists. “Who knows what concentration this stuff is?” he says. “When it was made by legitimate manufacturers, it was a very carefully controlled dose.”
Since the FDA banned the marketing of GHB in 1990, at least 49 deaths and 5,500 overdoses nationwide have been linked to GHB and GHB-related substances like GBL, according to the DEA. Still, there wasn’t a serious move to make the drugs illegal on a federal level until 1998. That bill, introduced by Michigan congressman Bart Stupak, “essentially went nowhere,” according to his spokesman, until Reid died this January.
After Reid’s death, her mother, Judi Clark, revived the movement to make the drugs illegal nationwide. “She was slipped GHB and/or GBL,” allegedly by three boys at one of her friend’s houses, Clark says tearfully. “They didn’t know which.” (The three now face manslaughter and felony poisoning charges.) She is currently researching grant options to start an anti-GBL-and-GHB foundation named for her daughter. “Every time I talk about it, it just breaks my heart,” she says, holding back tears. “But to not fight it would be even worse.”
Here in New York, despite efforts to educate clubbers, “it’s still the most popular drug on the scene,” according to Splash D.J. Julian Marsh. “We’ve run full-page ads in the local gay weekly HX warning our readers about Blue Nitro and RenewTrient,” Berkley says. “I honestly don’t know what else we can do.”
There is at least some evidence the message is getting through – albeit in the most painful way possible. A dealer named Greg* who sells ecstasy and cocaine says he won’t sell GBL because of the trouble his customers have had with GHB. “GHB causes so many problems,” he explains without a hint of irony, “that I wouldn’t even think of carrying another drug like it.”
*These names have been changed.