My son was talking about a new drug called "Grievous Body Harm" (or something like that) that is becoming more popular at parties. What can you tell me about it?
We think you are referring to the drug gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB). GHB is also known as Georgia Home Boy and Grievous Bodily Harm (to play off its initials) but also as liquid ecstasy and Natural Sleep-500.
GHB was first synthesized in 1960 and it is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier. This barrier is a complex structure that prevents many drugs and chemicals in the blood from entering the brain. Drugs like GHB, which do have the capacity to penetrate this barrier, are capable of producing central nervous system side effects such as seizures and coma. When it was first tested in Europe, GHB was noted to induce a sleeplike state with few other side effects. In 1963, scientists discovered that GHB was a naturally occurring substance in brain tissue.
GHB's reputation has grown steadily over the years. Some scientists in Japan believed that GHB mimicked the properties of steroids and growth hormone (an idea that was never proved) but as a result it was popular for a while among body builders. In 1990, it began being sold in health food stores as a sedative.
By the end of 1990, the FDA had received numerous reports of seizures and comas associated with GHB use. The FDA removed it from the market but it continues to be sold illegally, is easily accessible and reports of its use have increased dramatically within the past year. The San Francisco Bay Area Regional Poison Control Center reported a tripling of overdoses due to GHB from 1995 to 1996.
GHB is usually distributed as a colorless, odorless liquid with a mild taste that is said to be salty and soapy. Its taste can be easily disguised when mixed with something else. GHB can be mixed with a drink and tends to induce sleepiness or coma in the user. It has, unfortunately, become popular as a date-rape drug. Also, the individual who uses it (knowingly or unknowingly) may have no memory of what happened from the time they fell asleep to the time they woke up. Alcohol and marijuana increase the side effects of GHB, so mixing with an alcoholic beverage is even more dangerous.
Signs of an overdose of GHB include vomiting, slow heart rate, coma, seizures and labored breathing. Because the user may be quite sleepy at the time they vomit, GHB carries an additional risk of aspiration.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.
Pub Date: 7/08/97