The University Record, February 1, 1999

University mounts education campaign on dangers of GHB

By Rebecca A. Doyle

The University will be distributing materials to students and others in the campus community about the dangers of the drug gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB).

Although there have been no confirmed cases of GHB use on campus and no data exist concerning its prevalence, a number of recent alerts from other campuses have raised concerns about the drug, which is categorized along with Rohypnol as a date-rape drug.

In addition, the Department of Public Safety conducted some 80 interviews with students and others who saw Courtney Cantor shortly before her death and noted numerous references to student use of "lemons" or "lemon drops." Local law enforcement officers believe "lemons" may be a street name for GHB but the report released by the Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney following the investigation found no connection between the drug and Cantor's death.

"We don't know for certain whether what students call 'lemons' is in fact GHB, but we have to be concerned about the possibility that students are obtaining and using this dangerous drug," says Maureen Hartford, vice president for student affairs. "GHB is such a new drug that we have not gathered data, either on our own campus or nationally, about its use among college students. But there are some indications of a disturbing national trend."

Statistics from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information indicate that the use of GHB is growing nationally, and that high school and college students sometimes think the drug is safe, or even that it is legal. In combination with alcohol or other drugs, it can be deadly.

GHB was sold in health food stores as "safe" alternative to steroids for body building and is promoted on various Web sites as a sleep aid, anti-depressant, and to enhance sensuality and decrease inhibitions. In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration banned its manufacture and distribution.

According to a fact sheet prepared by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC), GHB is categorized as a date-rape drug. It has been named one because it not only lowers inhibitions but induces a coma-like state during which things may occur that a victim cannot remember.

But in recent news articles, stories have been told of students, especially women, taking the drug knowingly.

"Rumor has it that GHB appeals to women because they can have as little as one beer and still get the same effect as if they had consumed perhaps six," notes Marsha Benz, education coordinator for alcohol and other drugs. Some young women are apparently concerned about the number of calories they consume drinking a large amount of alcohol.

While women may experience a higher high for a lower calorie cost than with alcohol alone, they risk much more than a few pounds of weight by using an illegal street drug. Nationwide statistics from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) show that emergency visits to the hospital from use of GHB increased from 20 episodes in 1992 to 629 in 1996. There is reason to believe the totals are higher now, as are reportedly related deaths.

GHB is a central nervous system depressant which, when mixed with alcohol, causes an intoxication level that does not correlate with the amount of alcohol consumed. Even when GHB was an approved over-the-counter dietary supplement, its use with alcohol or other drugs was cautioned.

Now, when the substance is illegally manufactured in "kitchen labs," contamination has become a problem, and dosage cannot be accurately measured. In fact, the kits offered for sale on the Internet caution users to wear gloves and eye protection when mixing ingredients and warn against human consumption, stating that it is illegal in many states.

GHB possession and use is illegal in at least 15 states, including Michigan, and is listed as a controlled substance requiring a physician's prescription in many others. Its use has continued, however, in pill and powder form for women who use the drug recreationally, but most often as a clear, odorless liquid that is mixed with alcohol or other beverages by others who may be attempting to sexually use them.

Trinka Porrat, a Los Angeles police officer and drug consultant, is continuing to research GHB. Of her experience with the drug and those who have first-hand knowledge of its effects, she says, "In 25 years as a police officer, I find this drug the most dangerous in many ways. With most drugs, we can predict the effects of each dosage level with some degree of accuracy. Not so with GHB."

In addition to the inaccurate dosage levels in the street preparations, the amount of GHB that can adversely affect the body is highly dependent on the body weight and composition, as well as other factors. Determining the correct dosage was a difficulty even when it was prescribed by a physician.

For more information on GHB or other drugs, contact SAPAC, 998-9368, or University Health Service Health Promotion and Community Relations Department, 763-1320.

What is GHB?

GHB is a central nervous system depressant. It affects the respiration and heart rate of those who ingest it. It is colorless and odorless and usually has a slight salty or acidic taste. It is difficult to detect in a flavored drink. It is available in pill, powder or liquid, although most often seen on campuses as a small white or yellow pill.

How can you tell if someone is on GHB?

GHB enhances the effect of alcohol. If someone acts as if they are extremely intoxicated and have not been drinking or have been drinking very little, they may have taken GHB. GHB also removes sexual inhibitions and causes confusion, nausea, vomiting, seizures, incoherent speech, respiratory arrest, memory lapse and death.

How long does it take to start working?

GHB is very quickly introduced into the bloodstream after ingestion. Effects are noticeable after five minutes and reach full strength within 10 minutes. It may be very difficult to wake someone who has taken GHB and the user may seem to be very soundly asleep. A person who has ingested a normal dose of GHB, not an overdose, will usually wake up after four hours. Others may never wake up, especially if they have combined the drug with alcohol.

Although SAPAC's Sarah Heuser says that the unit's experience with GHB has been associated with its use as a date rape drug, she and Marsha Benz, education coordinator for alcohol and other drugs at University Health Service, have worked together to put out a fact sheet for students and concerned faculty, staff and administrators containing much of the above information. The sheet is available from SAPAC, 715 N. University, Suite 202, 998-9368.