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New party drug attracts teens - and police

Lawmakers seek to halt the rise of a 'designer drug' that is linked to deaths and date rapes.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 1999



"scoop." "liquid ecstasy." "grievous Bodily Harm."

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There's a long list of nicknames on the street, the Internet, and the nightclub scene. But they all refer to one thing: A designer drug that has been surging in popularity - especially among teens and young adults.

Odorless and colorless, gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) has surfaced in at least 27 states and is causing alarm because of the particularly dangerous ways it's being used.

GHB is known as a "date-rape drug" because of the ease with which it can be slipped into a drink and its potential to cause amnesia. And overdoses or unexpected reactions to the sometimes home-brewed substance are causing increasing numbers of emergency-room visits and even deaths.

Student surveys still put the use of alcohol and marijuana far ahead of GHB. But its rapid rise has captured the attention of drug-prevention workers. And its addictive nature and serious effects have already persuaded many lawmakers to push for stricter controls.

When five teenagers were hospitalized in Michigan earlier this month after sharing a drink laced with GHB at a party, it wasn't the first time such headlines caused alarm in the state. Just six months earlier, a high school freshman had died after consuming a tainted soft drink. Three men will be tried on charges that they poisoned her.

Her death was a wake-up call, says Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, who has introduced a bill in the House that would make the ban on GHB more comprehensive by making it a Schedule 1 drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

"Up to this point, I didn't know much about date-rape drugs," says Representative Upton, adding that the issue has resonated with him as a parent of an adolescent. "You can basically get this stuff overnight, with a credit card, delivered to your house. It's just crazy."

The bill, which he expects to be debated on the floor of the House by September, would also control another drug that has been linked to rapes, a tranquilizer called Ketamine. And it would establish reports and education campaigns on date-rape drugs, which sometimes cause amnesia.

Bipartisan support for stricter laws has been building for several years. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D) of Texas is a cosponsor of Upton's bill, which resembles one she introduced last year and is named after Hillory Farias, a girl in her district who died from a GHB-laced soft drink in 1996.

Thu Drug Enforcement Agency has documented more than 30 deaths attributable to GHB. In most of those cases, it was mixed with alcohol.

Emergency-room visits due to GHB increased to 629 in 1996 from 20 in 1992 in certain areas surveyed by the Drug Abuse Warning Network. Two-thirds of patients were 18 to 25 years old.

"They see it as a club drug ... something that gives them an extra high," says Andrew Hamid, a professor of social work at Columbia University in New York. Small doses of GHB, a depressant, can give people a feeling similar to alcohol intoxication.

A number of factors may influence whether young people take GHB, Mr. Hamid says. Among them, accessibility, the degree of risk they seek, and a hope that they can disguise their use of it.

An underlying issue is "the powerful influence of the illusion of invulnerability that is so present with adolescents," Hamid says.

"There is no sense that 'it will happen to me' .... Everybody has a sense that they are doing it carefully," he says.

But many appear ignorant of how dangerous large doses or mixing GHB with alcohol can be. At a house party in Metairie, La., three teenage girls became seriously ill after reportedly drinking eight shot glasses of Invigorate, a substance that converts into GHB once ingested. A normal dose is one teaspoon.

About 20 states have passed laws against GHB, and there has been some progress. Texas officials say the conviction of a dealer in Dallas County last year temporarily dried up the GHB supply.

To try to bolster investigations, police in Baton Rouge, La., have recently ordered field kits designed to help detect the drug, which can leave the system in as few as four hours.

GHB occurs naturally in the human body in small amounts. It was made synthetically in the 1960s and sold as an aid for bodybuilding. In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration investigated reports of adverse effects and banned the manufacture and sale of the drug.

But because various legal substances can be mixed in home labs to create GHB and related substances, laws that can significantly reduce the drug's circulation have been difficult to craft.

Congressman Upton says his bill would "squeeze out" producers who constantly modify their recipes to skirt laws against GHB. The one exception would be for testing GHB's potential as a treatment for narcolepsy, a sleep disorder.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society