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...

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.

“It gives people a warm, fuzzy feeling like the beginning of an alcohol buzz,” says Morgenthaler, whose book on prosexual drugs and nutrients, Better Sex Through Chemistry, co-authored with Dan Joy, promises male users of GHB steady hard-ons and delayed ejaculations and women “greater intensity of orgasm” and “increase in vaginal sensitivity.”

“You get disinhibition, and it makes you feel relaxed all over in a positive, pleasurable sensation,” Morgenthaler says.

Mike Feinke, an imaginative and kinetic fellow who fashions himself and his party pals the avatars of GHB, thinks of his clique as the GHB spigot, deciding who gets the drug and, more important, who gets to score again. [page]

“What the GHB has provided,” Feinke says, “[is] a way to be within the gay community but to be outside — above — and also at the forefront of something new.”

Something new? Well, sort of. Every drug that is old can become new again if users ignore or forget what the previous generation learned. Thanks to this social amnesia, the benefits and dangers of drugs like cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine are retaught to each new generation. Even a drug like GHB, which appears to have had few or no recreational users prior to 1989, can become new and then old and then new again in a short time span if people aren't mindful of its lessons.

The career arc of “new” drugs is predictable. Nearly every drug arrives on the scene as a panacea: It's said to be fun and harmless; to stimulate thinking and creativity; and it's almost never thought to be addictive. But almost invariably, the equation balances and panacea is reperceived as scourge. Studies are produced that claim that the drug is bad for your liver or lungs; that it contributes to short-term memory loss or brain damage; that it's as addictive as heroin.

Today, GHB is pure panacea for the prosexual movement, whose sex 'n' drug celebration of the compound is pretty much the same as the club underground's — except that the party animals complete the formula by including rock 'n' roll (or techno) in their trinity. So what if users have barfed their guts up on the stuff or gone to the emergency ward passed out cold on it? GHB enthusiasts will tell you that every risk comes paired with a reward, and that the known risks of GHB are eclipsed by the pleasures. And their view is no fringe perception: Details, GQ, and Men's Journal have all heralded GHB this year with laudatory articles about how it adds pleasure and potency to sex.

On the scourge side stands the government, which deplores any drug use unless the drug is Prozac or Valium dispensed by a physician (or unless the drug in question is alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine). The press has abetted the scourge sensibility, providing a raft of misinformation in 1993 when River Phoenix died in a convulsing heap on the sidewalk outside West Hollywood's Viper Room.

GHB was reputed to be in the stew of drugs that killed the young actor, mostly because one patron of the Viper Room told the Los Angeles Times that he had seen the drug “passed around by the capful on the night Phoenix died.” So intense was the press speculation about Phoenix and GHB that many publications embraced the fallacious nickname the DEA applied to it: “Grievous Bodily Harm.” The media did not do a very good job of cleaning up after itself upon reading the coroner's report, which documented lethal quantities of heroin and cocaine in Phoenix's body, as well as small amounts of marijuana, Valium, and ephedrine. That the coroner made no mention of GHB in his findings didn't make news, which left the public with the post-tragedy perception that the actor's death was GHB-related.

But that's not to say that all GHB detractors collect their checks from the government or write newspaper stories. Gantt Galloway of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics, who has been studying GHB users for two years and is preparing a medical journal article on it, insists that the compound has a definite addiction potential.

“It's hard to predict who will go into addiction, but it hinges on repeated exposure to a large amount,” Galloway says. “Physical dependence to GHB requires prolonged use of high doses, weeks at multiple times per day.”

This much is known for sure about GHB. It is an endogenous compound, “a natural part of the human biochemical salad,” as one researcher puts it, which can be found in every cell in the body as a metabolite. It was first synthesized in the laboratory in 1960 as part of a brain research project. Subsequent scientific work in the '60s explored GHB's structural similarity to the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) and its ability to induce a “sleep-like” state and, at higher doses, an anesthetized state.

GHB enjoyed minor success as an obstetric anesthetic in Europe in the '60s and as an experimental (and unsuccessful) treatment for opiate addiction in the '80s, but it didn't make a serious stir in medical circles here until 1990, when the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it as an experimental drug in the treatment of narcolepsy. Even so, GHB might well have languished for another couple decades in the dusty attic of once-promising pharmaceuticals had it not been for the federal crackdown on another endogenous compound — the amino acid L-tryptophan.

Sold over the counter at health food stores, L-tryptophan was hyped as a “natural” sleeping aid and acquired a following among bodybuilders who thought that it reduced the aggro edge that follows heavy steroid use; some also thought that it caused growth hormone to be released during sleep.

But L-tryptophan became scarce to unavailable in the wake of a November 1989 action by the FDA that recalled and banned the substance outright because a contaminated batch of the amino acid killed almost 30 people. The ban created a demand for a substitute, as the Washington Post reported. Almost immediately following the FDA move against L-tryptophan, ads for GHB began to appear in bodybuilder magazines promoting it as an L-tryptophan substitute. At health food establishments across the country, 100-gram bottles of GHB were sold over the counter for $40 apiece.

Sod Frietag, manager of the Sports Palace gym on Valencia, tells me that GHB was the beneficiary of glowing anecdotal reports in the bodybuilding scene a few years ago. [page]

“From what I could tell, it was a placebo effect. Now I think that the general feeling is that it didn't work. I think it's probably a bunch of crap and a waste of money,” Frietag says. “No one talks about it anymore, and only a few of the serious bodybuilders ever did.”

In the culture of bodybuilding, more is almost always better. So it should have come as no surprise when the musclemen and -women, loading up on their newfound “nutritional supplement,” rediscovered GHB's psychoactive qualities. They quickly spread the news of its recreational potential to their brethren in the gay community and beyond.

GHB's drug properties were further publicized by a November 1990 article in Tampa Bay's Creative Loafing, which described it as “all natural” and “a legal substitute for LSD.” One user told the newspaper, “Yeah, you trip on it … you feel like you love everything.” The user's comparison to LSD was nonsense, of course. GHB users have reported relaxation and sensual experiences while under its influence, as well as drowsiness and sexiness, but never the stunning hallucinations and time distortion associated with LSD, not to mention the one- or two-day recuperation that a full-blown acid trip demands. (As almost everyone has observed, GHB appears to leave no hangover.)

Widely available at health food stores, GHB was promoted in ad and label copy as a snake oil that could induce sleep (which it can), burn fat (a dubious claim), and stimulate growth hormones. That last medical boast was advanced by Japanese researchers in 1977; it has never been substantiated by other scientists.

Mark Thierman's Amino Discounters, a mail-order company, heavily marketed GHB under the name Somatomax P.M. while other manufacturers and distributors across the nation devised names like Gamma OH, Gamma Hydrate, Natural Sleep-500, and Oxy-Sleep to vend the compound.

The drug continued to bubble in the undercurrent as a legal high, little-noticed by the authorities, until November 1990, when it ran afoul of California Health Director Kenneth Kizer. Kizer ordered a statewide ban on GHB sales, declaring in a press release, “There is no known evidence demonstrating GHB to be safe or effective for any use.” His press release continued, “Anyone who has consumed GHB and is experiencing seizures, uncontrolled shaking, headache, unexplained drowsiness or other central nervous system disorders, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea should consult their physician immediately.”

Several days later, similar warnings were echoed by the FDA and the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of Nov. 30, 1990, documented 57 “acute poisonings” by GHB, 25 in California and 17 of them in the Bay Area.

The irony of the California and FDA reactions to GHB was that while scores of users in California, Florida, and Georgia (where the drug was known as “Georgia Home Boy” and “scoop”) had landed in emergency wards after ingesting GHB, no fatality or lasting injury associated with the drug had been recorded. The CDC itself linked the severity and duration of symptoms — like vomiting, drowsiness, loss of consciousness, tremors, and seizurelike activity — to the use of other drugs in combination with GHB and the size of the GHB dose. Three out of four California patients mentioned in the CDC report were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs when their GHB use brought them to the attention of physicians.

But it was the admonitions of Kizer and the FDA, not the cautionary findings of the CDC, that were picked up by the pliant press. The San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and Newsday essentially republished the Kizer and FDA press releases without doing independent reporting on their own — talking to users or reviewing the scientific literature. Even a superficial investigation of GHB would have documented its relative safety.

The FDA's press release declared GHB illegal except in FDA-supervised clinical trials, a condemnation that was tantamount to a ban on the drug. But the ban wasn't as forceful as a prohibition by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the usual lead federal agency in the war against a “new” psychoactive substance.

Legal authority over drugs is partitioned among the FDA, the DEA, and the states, inducing confusion over what is and is not an illegal drug, a state of affairs that creates loopholes — some would use the word “freedom” — for people to consume drugs. The DEA possesses great powers to regulate drugs (licit and illicit and their chemical precursors) that are named specifically by the Controlled Substance Act, or added to it through emergency scheduling. But as DEA spokesperson Rogene Waite notes, “GHB is not a scheduled substance, and as a result, the DEA doesn't look at that.”

The enforcement powers of the FDA, on the other hand, are defined by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The FDA is charged with policing the use and promotion of substances for which medical claims are made: Because medical claims (sleep aid, growth hormone stimulant) were made for GHB by its distributors, the FDA had full authority to shut them down.

“The major issue is not [GHB's] designation as legal or illegal,” says FDA spokesperson Janet McDonald. “The issue is what is its intended use. And if you can't tell from the bottle, if there's no inkling of what this is for and how it is to be used, then we have the option of moving on it, of finding out ourselves.”

McDonald compares the crackdown on GHB to similar FDA enforcement actions against laetrile and DMSO, compounds for which medicinal claims had been made but not proved to FDA satisfaction. She says that FDA actions against GHB had “long preceded” its press release on GHB.

“The action of that release was to alert the public that this drug was dangerous. The fact is that people who do this can become unconscious. It is too dangerous a drug to play around with,” she says. [page]

“We have actions going on all the time. And to limit them to November 1990 is wrong. November is not a special date. We had things going on before then, and we continue to take action. The FDA has the power to prosecute, power to inspect, the power to issue search warrants, power to seize products, and power to enjoin. I don't know about enjoinments, but we've done everything else,” McDonald says.

Much of the recreational GHB consumed today arrives in small quantities via mail order from Europe, purchased by folks who hope that Customs and the FDA don't find out. A supply house in the Netherlands sells 50 grams of GHB for $300.

“There should be automatic detention of any GHB that comes into the country,” says McDonald of the FDA. “We don't check on every item that comes in though, and if it comes in small quantities to individuals chances are that it's going to get through.”

Whatever success the FDA and Customs have in blocking foreign-made GHB will probably increase the demand for stateside clandestine manufacture. Crude synthesis of GHB requires little more than a hot plate and a few beakers. Vodka, lye, and hydrochloric acid are a few of the essential ingredients listed on the flawed recipe posted on the Internet, but you'd only consume this concoction if you considered yourself a human guinea pig. Manufacturing a purer batch demands better chemistry and more sophisticated precursors, like Procaine, which are sold by chemical supply houses like St. Louis' Sigma Chemical. Either way, it remains difficult to determine the purity or potency of GHB sold on the street.

(The Sigma catalog also stocks GHB at $14.40 for 10 grams, but whether they'll sell it to you or simply turn your name over to the FDA is another question.)

Depending on the specific charges brought by the feds, an unauthorized GHB manufacturer or distributor could face five to 15 years in jail and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. As for simple possession, with no intent to distribute, GHB is legal.

FDA spokesperson Arthur Whitmore says, “We would not have or seek a penalty for personal use of GHB. Our interest is in the distribution side, and interstate commerce to protect the public at large.”

Ken August, a spokesperson for the California Department of Health Services, says, “Possession of GHB by an individual is not illegal. GHB is not a controlled substance.”

Although the Free Clinics' Galloway has anecdotal evidence that the SFPD has been exposed to GHB through drunk-driving arrests, and that prevalence in the Bay Area is on the rise, Lt. Jim Hall at the SFPD's narcotics division says he's never heard of the drug.


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