Drug Story (Part II)

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

Bodybuilding enthusiast Mark Thierman was one of the country's largest GHB manufacturers and distributors in the early '90s, moving $600,000 worth of the drug before an FDA investigation caught up with him. Convicted in late 1993 on charges of conspiracy and of selling misbranded drugs, he is expected to be released in October 1997 from federal prison in Florence, Colo.

According to court documents on file at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, where Thierman is currently appealing his conviction, the 36-year-old became interested in bodybuilding in 1985, and after researching the field started a mail-order business called Amino Discounters. The Tucson, Ariz.-based company placed ads for amino acids and other supplements in magazines like Muscle and Fitness, Climbing, and Ironman. Beginning in December 1989, he sold GHB as "Somatomax P.M.," touting it as a sleep inducer and growth hormone stimulant and advertising it in his catalog for use by "young athletes under 20 years of age." Although Thierman knew firsthand about the side effects of the drug -- he had taken it with his friends and customers -- he did not share this information in his catalog or on the concoction's label. The Somatomax P.M. label stated:

Use one level teaspoon (5 ml/tsp) on an empty stomach 30 minutes before bedtime. Important: Do not use this product with alcohol or other CNS depressants as it may intensify their effects. This product causes extreme drowsiness and should be used only before bedtime. Keep out of the reach of children.

The court documents paint a sordid picture of the Amino Discounters manufacturing operation: "No tests were conducted nor records kept on the purity, potency, strength, or quality of the drug." When Thierman learned that authorities had executed a search warrant on one of his California distributors, he took measures to conceal the operation from the FDA.

The FDA seized Thierman's GHB supply and his manufacturing apparatus shortly after issuing its November 1990 ban. Even so, Thierman continued to make, sell, use, and give away GHB, according to court documents. He also burned records in response to a grand jury subpoena and even mopped the floor with tear gas after moving the Amino operation to create a "surprise" for the FDA on the chance that they visited the facility. According to court documents, even after Thierman was indicted in March 1991 he continued making the drug in secret, shipping it to Stanley Antosh here in the Bay Area. Thierman finally left the GHB business after two lab explosions at Amino and his arrest. Convicted in a one-month trial in late 1993, he was sent to jail.

FDA enforcement actions also shuttered GHB distributorships on the East Coast and in Southern California. In San Francisco, Amino Discounters' main GHB distributor was Biosky, a health supplements business owned by Stanley Antosh. Antosh says he sold GHB from January 1990 to November 1990 but stopped selling it in response to the FDA crackdown. He says he still faces 14 years on charges filed against him by the feds.

"It was a $1 million-a-month industry from Amino to Biosky and down the line," says Antosh, a jockish-looking 35. "It was a good little cottage industry."

Both the prosexual caucus and the former GHB entrepreneurs are following the legal machinations of the Thierman case. In attendance at Thierman's appeal hearing on Oct. 17 at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Spear Street were Antosh and Lawrence Wood, a former GHB distributor in Southern California. Also observing the proceedings and toting a plastic shopping bag of tapes, a recorder, and yellow legal pads was the thirtysomething Steven Fowkes of Smart Drug News.

Fowkes edits the 3,000-circulation newsletter, which is published 10 times a year by the Cognitive Research Enhancement Institute (CREI) in Menlo Park. GHB is a Smart Drug News mainstay, usually touted in articles and Q&As for both its sleep-inducing qualities and its sexual properties, and defended from FDA onslaughts in Fowkes-penned articles like "The Demonization of GHB."

A quiverful of pens sprouting from his pocket, Fowkes looks every bit the smart-drug nerd that he is. He defies the FDA to roll back the GHB movement and to stop him from ingesting the small amounts of GHB he takes three times a week before bedtime.

"Everything the FDA puts out on GHB is misinformation. The FDA is either completely misleading everyone, or they are lying," Fowkes tells me over lunch at a chintzy Italian restaurant downtown. "Anything they can do to prove that drugs are dangerous serves their ends."

One of Fowkes' early forays into the anti-FDA world came in 1990, when he teamed up with John Morgenthaler to write a book against congressional moves to expand the FDA's power. The book shouted its politics in its title: Stop the FDA. The bill died, and later Fowkes was gratified when the Dietary Supplement Act of 1994 passed, ensuring that the FDA's designs on the world of supplements, herbs, and vitamins were temporarily stymied.

But eternal vigilance is the price of nutritional supplement freedom, Fowkes says. "The battle is not over," he says, "but everyone thinks it is."

Morgenthaler, 36, didn't so much build the GHB bandwagon as board it. Throughout the '80s, he wrote books and lectured on life extension, and was key in founding CREI three years ago. He says he first encountered GHB in 1992 or early 1993 when a bodybuilder friend shared it with him.

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