One of many “party drugs” popular among the gay community, GHB has consistently found its way into headlines over the past few years, typically after it has claimed a life. (Most recently the death of TV star Joel Taylor was attributed to a GHB overdose aboard a recent Atlantis cruise.) Initially gaining popularity in the 1990s, the drug wasn’t made illegal in the United States until the year 2000, but since then it’s become a prevalent part of certain gay nightlife circles. But what is GHB, what are its effects on the body and how can it contribute to a person’s death?
What is GHB?
GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid) is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter developed by our body’s cells, and it aids in oxygenation of bodily tissues and helps regulate sleep, mood and anxiety.
Synthetic GHB, usually ingested orally in liquid form, is a sedative and depressant. Its effects can vary from euphoria and lowered inhibitions to unconsciousness and even death, depending on dosage.
GHB was first sold over-the-counter in the United States during the late ’80s as a sleep-aid for narcoleptics and an athletic performance enhancer to help bodybuilders produce growth hormone during deep sleep. But the Food and Drug Administration banned GHB after a few overdoses.
In March 2000, the U.S. government listed it as a controlled substance illegal to possess.
The physical effects of GHB
In low doses (0.5 to 1.5 grams), GHB can produce euphoria, increased libido, reduced social inhibitions and empathetic feelings. In high doses (2.5 grams or more), it can induce nausea, slowed breathing, amnesia, drowsiness, unconsciousness and even death.
GHB’s effects occur within 10 minutes to an hour, typically lasting two or three hours.
GHB is a notoriously difficult drug to properly dose, and is highly potent. A higher-than-intended dose can easily render someone unconscious.
A 2011 study of 226 GHB deaths found that 213 of them resulted from cardiorespiratory arrest and 71 involved no other intoxicants.
What is GHB used for?
Many people use GHB as a party drug. Because it’s a ‘downer’ that induces sleep — but causes users to feel high before they go unconscious — most recreational GHB users take small doses (often a cap-full) to get the high without actually passing out. Regular users of GHB are often accustomed to going unconscious on the drug.
Among gay men, GHB remains popular in nightclubs and the chemsex scene, often in combination with other drugs. It provides a similar sense of euphoria to alcohol, minus the sloppiness, the calories of booze or the hangover.
It’s also difficult for police to detect GHB, and the drug leaves the blood within a few hours.
GHB is also sometimes used as a “date rape drug,” because its clear, odorless and slightly salty taste make it difficult to detect in alcoholic drinks, and it can put a ‘victim’ in an amnesiac coma.