GHB: The Problem Child of the Club Drugs

By Michael Blain:

Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, more commonly referred to as GHB, has been more overlooked in seriousness and potential dangers than almost any other illicit scheduled substance in the world.

GHB became well-known in the club scene as a designer drug decades ago, and although the definition of a designer drug has shifted throughout the years, the dangers of this compound will never disappear. People can easily place this in another person’s drink since it is a clear liquid that is said to possess a salty taste but that is typically masked by the drink itself. Beyond that, it is willingly taken with a casual attitude very regularly across the world without regard to possible drug interactions; possibly due to lack of education about the chemical compound itself.

The drug is listed as Schedule III in Canada, and while most forms of it are on DEA Schedule in the United States, there is a commonly distributed chemical preparation of GHB called Xyrem that is only Schedule III. Xyrem is used to treat narcolepsy, which is quite dangerous to begin with, because it is a central nervous system depressant, and narcolepsy is a sleeping disorder in which a person has trouble staying awake. It has also been touted as one of the primary date rape drugs along with Rohypnol, which further calls its medical practicality into question.

In the Emergency Medical Journal, Michael Harrison states that an “overdose of GHB can be difficult to treat because of its multiple effects on the body.” And according to the clinical toxicology assessments, “GHB tends to cause rapid unconsciousness at doses above 3500 mg, with single doses over 7000 mg often causing life-threatening respiratory depression, and higher doses still inducing bradycardia and cardiac arrest. Other side-effects include convulsions (especially when combined with stimulants), and nausea/vomiting (especially when combined with alcohol).” This is extremely frightening because due to the near virtuoso level of precision in chemistry and high tech lab equipment required to synthesize GHB, the black market potency of doses will vary at an absurd level. This can also be attributed to the seemingly spontaneous chemical reactions that determine the potency of the compound itself.

In a controlled and regulated lab setting the end of result of the random potency levels can be accounted for and the concentration adjusted, but on the black market, few chemists have the knowledge or equipment to combine γ-butyrolactone with sodium hydroxide in ethanol at the correct levels, or even have the ability to test it if something went wrong. This means that what may seem like a normal dose could actually only be a couple hundred milligrams of GHB, or the far more tragic option: thousands of milligrams in excess of the overdose threshold.

Although it’s mostly used in the club scene, body builders and athletes also use GHB because it elevates the human growth hormone in vivo, and most seem to swear by its beneficial effects, ignoring the damage to their brain and body. This is also another huge piece in the problematic GHB puzzle, because drug dealers that distribute steroids and other workout enhancements also sell GHB. Couple that with the dealers who are selling it for recreational use and throughout party scenes, and they have created an unfathomably wide net of distribution.

Overdoses are so common with GHB that they are nicknamed ‘G’ing out.’ What is it going to take for people to educate themselves before ingesting a substance?

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