Commonly considered a “club drug” that is popular at raves and in the party and club scene, GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid) has similar properties to benzodiazepine drugs. It can cause euphoria, relaxation, increased libido, lowered inhibitions, and an altered state of mind.
GHB actually occurs naturally in the body in very small amounts, and it is related to GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters that acts as a natural sedative. Medically, GHB has been used for anesthetic purposes, to treat narcolepsy (daytime sleepiness), and even for the treatment of alcohol addiction and withdrawal. Bodybuilders used to take GHB as a dietary supplement in an attempt to enhance muscle mass without anabolic steroids before it was banned for this purpose.
In 2000, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified GHB as a Schedule I controlled substance, making it an illegal drug with no accepted medicinal uses within the United States. GHB is one of the rare drugs that is classified in different drug schedules. Xyrem (sodium oxybate), a GHB-containing pharmaceutical product that is used medically to treat narcolepsy and cataplexy (loss of muscle tone related to narcolepsy), is classified as a Schedule III controlled substance. Drugs that are precursors to GHB and likely converted into GHB when metabolized, such as GBL (gamma-butyrolactone) and BD (1,4-butanediol) have industrial and commercial uses and therefore are not scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Both BD and GBL, and GHB analogues, are sold illicitly as “fish tank cleaner,” “ink stain remover,” “nail enamel remover,” and “ink cartridge cleaner” for much more money than these products typically go for, sometimes as much as $100 a bottle. Those who produce and distribute GBL or BD as substitutes for GHB, as recreational drugs, are subject to illegal drug penalties. GHB is often synthesized in clandestine laboratories and marketed for recreational abuse.
Spotting GBH Abuse
GHB is sold as a clear liquid or white powder to be dissolved in liquid. GHB is odorless and a little salty in taste. It is often distributed in small water bottles or vials or by the capful at clubs or all-night dance parties for between $5 and $25 a “swig,” the DEA reports. GHB, and its analogues, may be marketed as supplements for baldness reversal, improved eyesight, fat loss, or to treat insomnia, aging, drug addiction, and depression.
Recreationally, GHB is often mixed with alcohol or other drugs, such as methamphetamine, marijuana, or other stimulant or depressant drugs, to amplify its effects. GHB is taken to increase sexual libido, to enhance moods and energy levels, to induce amnesia, or to increase suggestibility and passivity, which can make it a candidate for use as a date rape drug.
GHB is typically considered a drug that is primarily abused by teenagers and young adults. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey that indicates that nearly 1 percent of high school seniors in the United States used GHB in 2016.
NIDA reports that GHB is called easy lay, grievous bodily harm, liquid ecstasy, scoop, soap, G, goop, and Georgia homeboy on the street.
Someone under the influence of GHB may exhibit the following signs:
- Sluggish movements
- Increased sex drive
- Fewer inhibitions than normal
- Mental confusion
- Extreme happiness
- Slowed breathing
- Lowered pulse and heart rate
- Heightened energy levels
- Memory loss
- Heightened relaxation
A person may be less anxious under the influence of GHB since the drug has sedative effects that may lead to a loss of consciousness. GHB can also cause hallucinations, psychotic thoughts and/or actions, aggressive behaviors, nausea and vomiting, seizures, and extremely low body temperatures when taken in large amounts. Effects are amplified when the drug is mixed with other mind-altering substances like alcohol.
GHB generally takes effect within 10-20 minutes of ingesting it. The “high” lasts between two and five hours on average, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) reports.
Chronic use of GHB may induce a personality shift in a person, and they may suffer from unpredictable mood swings and erratic behaviors. Sleeping and eating patterns may change, and physical appearance can decline. School, friends, and recreational activities may become less important, and social circles often change. Individuals will likely be less consistent at fulfilling obligations, and relationships and job and/or school production regularly suffer.
The presence of empty vials and small bottles may be an indication that GHB is being abused as well. As GHB is often abused at nightclubs, increased interest in clubs or raves may also be a warning sign of abuse.
Dangers Associated with GHB Use
GHB has many potential negative side effects and risks of abuse, not the least of which is the potential for a fatal overdose. The Global Information Network about Drugs (GINAD) warns that a GHB overdose can lower respiration rates to dangerous levels and impair breathing as well as possibly cause a loss of balance, tremors, sweating, dizziness, trouble seeing, confusion, seizures, coma, respiratory failure, or even death.
As a central nervous system depressant, GHB slows life-sustaining autonomic functions like heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure, and it also lowers body temperature. When combined with other depressants, like alcohol, side effects and risks are increased. A teaspoon or two of GHB is often added to “home brews,” and individuals may not even know how high the dose of GHB is, which also raises the risk for a potentially life-threatening overdose. Swift medical intervention to ensure that airways remain open and vital signs stay stable during a GHB overdose are imperative in order to prevent possible brain damage or death due to respiratory failure.
GHB abuse can increase the risk that a person will be involved in an accident or become a victim of sexual assault. GHB impairs a person’s thought processes, and they may engage in behaviors that are out of character, taking bigger risks than normal and putting themselves into potentially dangerous or hazardous situations.
Tolerance to GHB can form with regular use, leading a person to need to take higher doses to keep feeling its effects. GHB can also cause psychological and physical dependence, and a person who takes the drug regularly may suffer from withdrawal symptoms within an hour or two after stopping use. Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult and even dangerous, as anxiety, depression, insomnia, muscle cramps, hostility, tremors, delirium, irregular heart rate and blood pressure, paranoia, hallucinations, confusion, and agitation can occur.
GHB is also considered to be an addictive drug. Continued use makes changes to the way the brain functions and can lead to an inability to control dosage and drug-seeking and using behaviors.
Getting Help for GHB Addiction
GHB dependence is best treated through a medical detox program initially. Detox generally lasts 3-5 days in a specialized facility where vital signs and mental health status can be monitored 24/7. Benzodiazepine medications may be substituted for GHB and then tapered off slowly to minimize and manage the intensity of the withdrawal symptoms and to mitigate cravings.
After detox, an addiction treatment program can provide therapeutic and supportive care. Counseling and therapy sessions, nutritional planning, exercise programs, support groups, life skills workshops, relapse prevention, and educational programs are all often part of a comprehensive treatment plan that will be specifically designed for each individual client.