Death Of The Party

ON THE STREET THEY CALL IT Grievous Bodily Harm. That ominous nickname may be lousy shorthand for gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), but it's a tragically accurate description of the nation's hot new party drug. Police tell horror stories coast to coast. There's 15-year-old Lucas Bielat, who gulped some during a rave in the California desert, quickly began frothing blood, curled up in the sand and died. Or Holly Harmon, 19, who remains in a coma one year after she took a swig at an Atlanta party. Since GHB can be especially deadly when mixed with alcohol, officials have begun testing for the drug in drinking-related deaths. Low levels turned up in the blood of Louisiana State University freshman Benjamin Wynne, who died in August after a drinking binge with his fraternity brothers. ""We are hitting epidemic proportions with GHB,'' says Trinka Porrata, a narcotics detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. That's probably an overstatement, but federal officials have linked at least 20 deaths and hundreds of medical emergencies to the drug, and most experts believe that those tallies are extremely conservative. Small vials of the clear, salty liquid have become common on the nightclub and rave scenes in cities like Miami, New York and San Francisco. GHB is a neurotransmitter-like chemical found naturally in the brain. ""We have no idea what it actually does,'' says Dr. David McDowell of the substance-treatment-and-research service at Columbia University. One theory is that GHB is an upper like cocaine, increasing levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Others contend that GHB is a downer like alcohol, which works by depressing the central nervous system.

Devotees claim that GHB--in the right dosage--lowers inhibitions, increases sex drive and provides a euphoric, out-of-body high. Many low-dose users swear by its sleep-aiding powers. Ravers consider it a lighter alternative to LSD and PCP. But even boosters admit that the stuff can knock them out cold. (No surprise, since GHB is sometimes used as an anesthetic in Europe.) It's also been dubbed Easy Lay, a casual moniker with some sinister overtones; GHB is cropping up so frequently in date-rape cases that police in L.A. County now routinely test victims for both GHB and the knockout pill Rohypnol. It's also popular with gays on the high-risk-sex scene who take the stimulant Ecstasy and later use GHB to take the edge off. ""The combination is kind of a New Age upper/downer,'' says Dr. David E. Smith, medical director of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics in San Francisco.

GHB surfaced in the '80s on the shelves of health-food stores, touted as a ""natural'' boon to bodybuilding, weight loss and sleep. But those effects haven't been scientifically proven. After a rash of illnesses ranging from vomiting to seizures, unconsciousness and coma, the FDA yanked GHB off the market in 1990 and banned its sale and importation. But so far only nine states--including California, which passed a law last month--have outlawed possession of the drug.

Cracking down on GHB is no easy task. A typical dose, a teaspoonful, sells for less than $10, and even a rave's worth looks innocuous when stored in water or mouthwash bottles. GHB can be concocted at home from common chemicals such as lye; recipes and mail-order ingredient kits are available on the Internet. ""You wouldn't have to be a very good chemist to make this stuff,'' says Dan Perrine, author of ""The Chemistry of Mind-Altering Drugs.'' In Florida police recently confiscated 10 pounds of the drug from one home lab, enough to supply more than 1,500 doses. The quality of home brew varies--a bad batch can burn the esophagus with too much alkali--but even the right mix is obviously no guarantee of safety. ""GHB one-time, single-dose use can kill you,'' says Detective Porrata in L.A. ""There's no predictability to it.''

There are also some preliminary indications that the drug may be addictive. In a California study published this year in the journal Addiction, GHB users who took high doses over a long period suffered symptoms of withdrawal. Still, the dangers of GHB haven't yet dampened its popularity. ""It may be getting a bad rap, but it's still getting around,'' says a 26-year-old Miami club-hopper who has experimented with the drug. Among such risk-takers, it seems, the GHB high is still being celebrated. Its high price has yet to sink in.