Susan Middleton first learned about GHB when she found a Gatorade bottle containing a clear liquid in her daughter’s freezer in Kansas City, Kan.
Inexplicably, the liquid was not frozen. Middleton sniffed the contents. No odor.
"What in the world?" she thought.
Her curiosity led her to the Internet. Put in "odorless liquid" and "Gatorade bottle" and up pops gamma hydroxybutyrate, a powerful central nervous system depressant.
GHB seemed like the least of her daughter’s problems. But as it turned out, GHB was the root of her problems.
Most people fear GHB as a "date rape" drug. But this deceptively dangerous liquid has grown in popularity in recent years with partiers, athletes and others who take it deliberately, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Partiers sip it to get high. A capful is akin to drinking five beers in five minutes with a little PCP on top, experts say. But drink too much and you may never wake up.
Bodybuilders and athletes use it as an alternative to steroids, thinking it makes them bigger and stronger. But it can send regular users into psychosis and ruin their bodies.
Police departments haven’t routinely tested for GHB. But when Kansas City investigators busted a GHB lab in June in a River Market loft, they realized this drug may be a bigger player in the local drug scene than they thought. They recovered nearly a liter of GHB, enough for hundreds of doses.
GHB-related overdoses have killed at least three people in the area in recent years, including a 28-year-old Northland man in October.
Nationally, one expert identified 200 GHB-related deaths across the country from 1995 to 2005, but the real numbers could be much higher because police, hospitals and medical examiners don’t routinely check for it.
People who supply GHB at rave parties, the bar scene or the gym contend it is harmless. But that’s not true, said Trinka Porrata, a leading international GHB expert and retired Los Angeles police detective.
"GHB addiction is the single toughest — most prolonged and most dangerous — of all drug withdrawals," said Porrata, who runs a nonprofit organization called Project GHB.
Even Middleton’s daughter, Alina Bostic, seemed to realize that GHB, or G as it is known among users, had taken over her life.
Bostic told her mother in September 2007: "I think it was the G that really messed me up."
A few weeks later, Middleton stopped by Bostic’s home with leftover lasagna and brownies. She found her daughter lying facedown in her living room.
She was dead.
Bostic moved to the Kansas City area with her mother and sister when she was about 1 year old. She danced on the drill team at Lee’s Summit High School and joined the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority at Northwest Missouri State University, where she earned a public relations degree.
"Alina was such a bright and charming girl," Middleton said. "She was the kind of person you wanted to be around."
While working as a bartender, Bostic kept putting off plans to pursue a career related to her degree. She started using GHB through a friend she met at the bar. Her life soon spiraled out of control.
"It was like she turned a corner into a dark alley and never came out," Middleton said.
Bostic became withdrawn and extremely anxious and had angry outbursts. She quit working and wouldn’t leave her home. She spent nearly all her time in bed trying — without success — to get some sleep. A doctor prescribed Xanax and sleeping pills.
Middleton moved her daughter into her Raymore, Mo., home to keep closer tabs on her. Whenever Bostic acted strangely, Middleton gave her a drug test. Each time, Bostic passed. But the test didn’t screen for GHB.
Eventually, Bostic refused a drug test and moved back into her own house.
At the time, Middleton thought her daughter was depressed and addicted to prescription drugs. In reality, Bostic was struggling with GHB and trying to medicate her painful withdrawal symptoms with other drugs — a common tactic among addicts, experts say.
Ten days after Bostic’s 30th birthday, Middleton left work early to check on her. After finding the body, she called 911.
Police crime scene technicians left behind a tea bottle containing a clear liquid. It was GHB. Middleton called police, who returned to get it.
She had to ask the coroner to test her daughter’s body for GHB, something he doesn’t routinely do.
Multiple drug intoxication caused Bostic’s death, Wyandotte County Coroner Alan Hancock said. She had 432 milligrams per liter of GHB in her blood — well more than a toxic level, according to an international study of GHB deaths.
She also had alcohol and small amounts of other drugs, including Xanax, in her system.
"GHB was a major contributor," Hancock said, adding that it was the second GHB-related death he has seen in recent years.
The other case involved a man who passed out at a house party. The next morning, everyone left for work except him. Residents didn’t realize he was dead until they returned that night.
Hancock is open to the possibility that other GHB-related cases might have been missed.
"It’s totally invisible," Middleton said. "It can be any color and be put in any bottle. No one wants to hear about it."
GHB can hide in plain sight.
That may be why a Kansas City woman suspected of running a GHB lab allowed police into her River Market loft in June. Acting on a tip that drugs were being sold from the home, police asked whether they could search it.
She opened her kitchen cabinet to show them a small bag of marijuana and a bong, or water pipe, used to smoke it.
"Here’s all I have," she said.
The detectives, however, didn’t believe her. When they asked about a glass cup in her cabinet, she told them to leave.
But by then, police already had enough probable cause to get a search warrant. All told, detectives spent eight hours recovering nearly a liter of GHB they found in containers of various sizes. They also found a handwritten recipe, a video of the woman making GHB and hundreds of little plastic bottles — an indicator that the GHB was being sold to numerous customers.
Criminals make GHB by mixing a degreasing chemical found in paint strippers, gamma butyrolactone, or GBL, with sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, which are similar to drain cleaners. The resulting liquid tastes salty.
The bust — the first of its kind in Kansas City — prompted police to take notice.
"We said, ’Hey. We need to make sure we’re paying attention to this,’ " said Maj. Jan Zimmerman, who commands the narcotics and vice unit.
The woman has not been charged, pending further investigation.
Sgt. Tim Witcig said he believed that the woman, an unemployed bartender, probably was selling GHB as a party drug.
But police wondered: Had she also sold GHB to men wanting to take sexual advantage of others?
Before it happened to her, a Northland mother never dreamed that a man would slip a sexual assault drug into her beer at a neighborhood party.
But her experience in 2005 mirrors many of the 31 sexual assault reports taken by Kansas City police in the past 18 months involving victims who feared they had been drugged. Victims reported attacks at bars, homes, vehicles and hotels. Police were not able to prove the allegations, in part, because such drugs leave victims’ bodies within hours.
Experts at the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault in Kansas City say they see an increasing number of victims who believe they have been drugged, and most of them don’t report it.
"They don’t have clear memories of what happened," said Allison Jones-Lockwood, MOCSA’s director of advocacy and outreach. "It’s very difficult to come forward and say you were raped when you don’t know the details."
The Northland mother waited three days to report her attack.
Diana (who didn’t want her last name published) was 27. She and her husband attended a Halloween costume party at a friend of a friend’s house. It was BYOB. Diana didn’t know that until she arrived. Her best friend’s husband provided her cans of beer.
"I didn’t think anything of it," Diana recalled. "I had known him for three years. I look back now and consider myself stupid."
Diana said she believed she and her husband were drugged with GHB. Over five to seven hours, she drank three beers and had two shots of cinnamon schnapps. That amount normally would not make her ill, she said.
Her husband passed out in the backyard. In the house, Diana vomited, became disoriented and later could not control her muscles. She stumbled to the bathroom, where she drifted in and out of consciousness. Neighbors checked on her at different times. Then her friend’s husband entered and locked the door behind him.
She doesn’t remember the rape but has a distinct memory of him announcing that he had ejaculated.
The next morning, Diana felt fine. No headache. No hangover.
But frightening images flashed in her head.
"It was like a horror flick," she said. "Little bits and pieces of what had happened."
She didn’t know what to do. Another partygoer encouraged her to call the police.
"I know something bad happened to you," he said. "If you don’t call the police, I will."
Diana and her husband took her party costume to the Kansas City Police Department’s North Patrol Division station.
Traumatized, she moved, changed jobs and went through therapy at MOSCA to overcome post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Eighteen months later, DNA tests linked semen on her costume to her friend’s husband.
Clay County prosecutors initially declined to file charges. But after Diana persisted, Clay County Prosecutor Dan White got a grand jury indictment. White told Diana he was convinced GHB was put in her beer.
A jury last year found Michael David Heith, now 47, guilty of felony deviate sexual assault. A judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail. He later moved to Texas, where he is awaiting trial for allegedly soliciting a minor online.
Diana’s experience made her more vigilant about her surroundings and her drinks, which she won’t even leave alone at a buffet restaurant while getting food.
"I refuse to be a victim," said Diana, who volunteers for MOCSA.
Originally developed as a surgical anesthetic, GHB later was promoted as a legal alternative to steroids and sold at health food stores.
After some deaths and overdoses, federal officials declared it illegal in 2000.
But the main ingredient still is sold legally, as long as it is not marketed for human consumption. Some Web sites sell GBL as an industrial chrome cleaner or paint remover.
People taking GHB for athletic purposes or to sleep are most at risk to become addicted, experts say. Their bodies require increasing doses just to feel normal. Eventually they can need doses every few hours.
Many drug rehabilitation centers aren’t familiar with the unique and lengthy detoxification necessary to kick the addiction, said Porrata of Project GHB.
Truman Medical Center has not seen patients for GHB overdoses or withdrawal-related problems, a spokesman said.
But Porrata thinks the hospital and others are missing GHB cases because they are not testing for it.
"They miss it all the time," she said.
Some users dismiss the dangers as hysteria and say deaths and complications are due to people overindulging in GHB, making it no more deadly than alcohol.
Police, however, side with Porrata.
Depression and suicide are other risks of GHB, Porrata said.
An inmate’s death from GHB withdrawal in Florida cost $1.75 million in a civil lawsuit, she said.
"Most drug detoxes are three to five days," she said. "But GHB is 10 to 14, and they can die at any time during that if not adequately medicated and supervised."
Some drug users gravitate to GHB because the courts and probation officers don’t test for it, Porrata said.
Jackson County Drug Court routinely screens for eight drugs, but not GHB. Officials say they don’t believe it is a drug of choice here.
But Porrata asks: How do they know if they don’t test for it?
"We have found subcultures of GHB abusers who started for exactly that reason," said Porrata, who fields calls from addicts and parents across the country.
Will Hollingsworth bought GHB from a Florida health food store when it still was being sold legally in the 1990s. A wrestler and track speedster, he believed unsubstantiated claims it would help him build muscle and endurance.
But it ravaged his mind. When he tried to stop taking it, the withdrawals sent him into psychosis. He thought he was Jesus.
His parents committed him to mental hospitals 12 times.
"I didn’t realize it was withdrawal," said his mother, Jan Hollingsworth, a retired newspaper reporter now writing a book about GHB’s dangers. "I thought he was still taking GHB and that was putting him over the edge."
Doctors found three distinct lesions in Will Hollingsworth’s brain in 2002 that they couldn’t explain. His hearing and sight were damaged, and he couldn’t move without a walker. Doctors told him his condition would never improve.
Four days later, he killed himself by setting himself on fire. He was 23.
Hollingsworth wrote a 2006 story about her son’s struggle for The Tampa Tribune. After it was published, she heard from hundreds of readers, including a Florida man whose son, a top state wrestler, became psychotic after starting college. The son came home for psychiatric treatment and killed his girlfriend with a baseball bat while his parents were away.
"I don’t know why I did it," he told his parents when they returned home.
The father told Hollingsworth his son had been ordering GHB off the Internet for years. He had no idea it could be related to his son’s mental decline until he read her story — three months after the homicide.
Hollingsworth is disappointed that after these tragedies, many front-line workers such as police, ambulance crews, doctors and medical examiners still are ignorant of the dangers of GHB.
She said any athletes who suddenly suffer psychosis or delusions should be examined for GHB use.
"There is a way to save these people’s lives and there’s a way to kill them," she said.
Hollingsworth searched for information on the Internet after her son’s first psychotic episode. She found nothing but GHB recipes.
When Middleton first realized her daughter may have taken GHB, she asked a police friend, who had never heard of it. She asked her daughter’s friends and they told her it wasn’t addictive and "not to worry."
"Well, it is addictive," Middleton said recently. "It’s probably the worst drug out there. ... It’s bigger than what they think."
Lack of education is the biggest reason GHB keeps hurting and killing people, experts say.
"These folks are outside the realm of recognition and help right now," Porrata said. "Their numbers will grow."
Project GHB’s Web site — started by parents who lost a son to GHB — features the stories of 19 men and women who died from GHB-related causes. Many suffering overdoses were left to "sleep it off." Heartsick parents lament that friends periodically "checked" on their loved ones, but no one called for help.
"I lost my child," one parent wrote, "a part of my heart and a part of my reason to live, to GHB, the insidious monster."
Middleton understands the pain all too well. She raised two beautiful, successful and independent daughters. She got them through college and thought they were safe.
But now her younger daughter, who once loved frogs, angels and butterflies, is gone. And Middleton blames GHB.
"If this could happen to Alina, it could happen to anyone."
By Christine Vendel
August 29, 2009
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GHB: Deceptive, deadly and often overlooked