Drug Story (Part I)

Discovered by brain researchers in the early '60s and resurrected by bodybuilders in the late '80s, the semi-illicit compound GHB is now marketed on the club and smart-drug circuits as a sexy wonder drug. But beware GHB's knockout punch.

Smoke and house music wash over the crowd at Badlands, a bar at the confluence of 17th and Castro. Men wall the benches, occasionally breaking posture to sway to the dance hymns the DJ artfully blends together. The clock approaches the prime hours of Saturday night, and the bouffanted drag queens dip and swoop to avoid shearing the overhead Halloween cobwebs with their towering 'dos.

Sipping from a Rolling Rock in front of the DJ is Mike Feinke, his concentration split between the boys and the subject at hand: GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, the quasi-legal euphoric drug. The 25-year-old, decked out in a baseball cap and neat mustache, scans the floor as he talks about his experiences with the drug he compares to Ecstasy -- or a good drunk without the cloud.

Feinke might not be so eager to talk to me about GHB tonight if he had some. If that were the case, he'd hitch himself to the bar and order a beer and a shot of soda water. This being the Castro, chances are the bartender would be in the know about GHB, and he'd watch with bemusement as Feinke placed a small, Tylenol-like bottle next to his drinks and measured out half of a $10 hit -- say, a teaspoonful equivalent to 2 grams -- of the grainy white powder into the soda and watched the hygroscopic compound dissolve instantly. Feinke would raise the glass, maybe toast the bartender, and slug the salty solution down.

Of course, Feinke knows that one shouldn't mix alcohol with GHB: All central nervous system (CNS) depressants like alcohol "potentiate" the effects of GHB, that is, act synergistically with it to create an effect that is greater than the sum of the two drugs. But what's a party without a couple of drinks?

Feinke also knows that there's a thin line between a satisfying dose of GHB and a comatose one. He learned the hard way when he took some GHB back home to the Midwest to share with his friends. One night he took a hit, and before it had a chance to kick in he took another. The double dose whacked him like a brick. Soon he was passed out in the club's bathroom -- sitting in, not on, a toilet, and soaked to the skin. An enormous drag queen took pity on Feinke, trying to rouse him from his wet throne. But Feinke didn't have the motor control to speak clearly, so when he asked the queen to take him out to his car, she thought he wanted to go out to the dance floor. There, among everyone reveling to the techno beats, lay Feinke, collapsed and drenched.

But the dosage question is academic to-night. There will be no GHB available until The Guy, who is awaiting a shipment from Canada, gets it next week. Besides, Badlands isn't Feinke's ideal setting for taking the drug. He prefers consuming the stuff at places like Lift, Universal, and Pleasuredome, the dance clubs of choice for musclemen who gyrate and sweat until the wee hours of the morning.

Feinke belongs to a clique of two dozen GHB enthusiasts -- as he says, gay, "go-for-broke" bodybuilders, hard-core partiers -- who use the drug as a surrogate for the phenethylamine Ecstasy (MDMA), a stand-in for speed, and as a pharmacological adjunct in their pursuit of sexual pleasure. Feinke and other regular users love the sensual, sex-enhancing qualities of GHB, boasting that it is one stupefacient that doesn't make your dick limp.

"I like to tell people I'm on GHB and get their reactions," he says me with the grin of Mephisto. "Usually they've never heard of it or they're scared of it, and they tell me it was the drug River Phoenix died on and that it's really dangerous. All along, they're the ones strung on crystal."

Feinke regards GHB as an alternative to speed -- he can't stand the paranoia and jitters that accompany that drug. "Right now, with AIDS in the background, the gay scene isn't about money, it's about healthiness -- or the illusion of healthiness. So with GHB, the draw is the same as the draw to crystal: You can take it and dance all night."

Getting onto the dance floor is what matters to Feinke, hence his routine: one hit of GHB to get up -- about 20 minutes later his inhibitions are lowered and he's dancing -- and another one three hours later when the effects from the first dose start to wear off. Oh, and another plus Feinke likes to talk about: The morning after a capful of GHB you can still rise and shine for work.

Feinke (not his real name) and his clubgoing pals aren't the only GHB enthusiasts in the Bay Area. The stuff is still remembered in the bodybuilding culture, whose denizens used to believe that the drug stimulates growth hormone and adds well-toned muscle. Spirited discussions about GHB still appear on the Internet newsgroup rec.drugs, and flawed recipes for manufacturing it reside on a well-visited Web site. But outside the clubs and the Net, GHB's most vocal proponents lie in the prosexual faction of the smart-drug set, a bunch of Bay Areans who have embraced GHB in their quest for the perfect orgasm. Prosexual entrepreneurs like John Morgenthaler reject the government's efforts to curb the use of GHB, insisting that it is plenty safe for informed adults.

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