GHB Is a Bad Drug With a Good Side

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

June 27, 2000 (Rockville, Md.) -- Consider a drug that's so powerful, it may even wipe out your memory of having taken it. GHB, or gamma-hydroxybutyrate, has a nasty reputation as a new drug used by partying young people. It also has a good side that most people don't hear about.

In lower doses, GHB is an experimental treatment for narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that can be deadly. GHB's also an approved therapy for alcoholism in Italy. Researcher Gian Luigi Gessa, MD, head of the neuroscience department at the University of Cagliari in Italy says GHB acts like methadone in heroin addicts, blocking the craving.

You can still purchase this intoxicating sedative over the Internet under many names like "Reneutrient" or "Blue Nitro." Barring that, the formula for this solvent is well known, and you could probably whip up a batch at home.

Perhaps, most chilling is that GHB is a colorless, tasteless liquid that's dropped into an unsuspecting victim's drink often as a prelude to rape. Even though President Clinton signed a measure into law in March making GHB illegal except for certain medical treatments, experts believe that more young people are using GHB, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

"It's so deadly, and it's been marketed by a lot of these companies as being either a growth hormone, or something to enhance sexual performance, or something to help you workout. So a lot of these users don't know what they're getting," Robert Mecir, special agent of the California Department of Justice, tells WebMD.

Mecir recently took part in a bust that netted 33, 55-gallon drums of GHB. The drug's street value is about $200 an ounce.

The Drug Enforcement Administration says that GHB has been linked to 66 deaths and some 5,700 overdoses, but, as disturbing as those numbers are, they may only be the beginning of the outbreak.

"With the demographics being under age 25, it's pretty frightening," Timothy Condon, PhD, associate director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), tells WebMD. Condon is one of about 50 participants attending an international meeting on GHB here Tuesday. The goal is to get a handle on this relatively new drug phenomenon before it gets out of hand.

GHB is considered a 'club drug' -- one of many illicit substances tied into the so-called 'rave' music scene. Some of the drug's effects are similar to Rohypnol, a sedative unapproved in the U.S. that leaves victims vulnerable to sexual assault.

According to a NIDA release, GHB is commonly used in Michigan, Hawaii, or Texas where it's known as 'liquid ecstasy,' although unlike that drug, GHB has no hallucinogenic effect. What isn't known is how widespread the GHB problem is. Some of the early warning sources, like poison control centers, or the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), are reporting a dramatic increase in GHB-related emergency room admissions.

GHB is often used in common with alcohol, or other drugs which intensify the effect.

There have even been a few murders that authorities believe resulted from GHB poisonings. Some two-thirds of GHB users are younger than 25, and about 70% are male. In Seattle, 90% of those taking GHB are white.

Physicians hoping to detox GHB abusers are in for a challenge, according to Karen Miotto, a specialist in addiction medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her sample of 42 patients shows that two-thirds of them lost consciousness from taking the drug. Then many required heavy doses of tranquilizers to deal with symptoms like anxiety or panic.

Miotto says that since GHB has such a memory numbing effect, it's hard to convince the patient that he or she has a drug problem. "That's been the biggest obstacle to treatment, because when I say you have a GHB addiction, and we need to help prevent relapse, it completely runs contrary to their thoughts of themselves," says Miotto. Learn more about addiction support groups.