`Club drug' Blue Nitro making appearances throughout Maryland

Some suburban teens using chemical mixture made from varnish, lye

April 12, 1999|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Blue Nitro, the new "club drug" of the suburban set, is sometimes billed as a safe, natural high.

It's about as safe and natural as floor varnish and lye -- two of the ingredients kitchen chemists commonly use to make it, according to Maryland anti-drug officials who have counted 10 overdose cases in emergency rooms around the state since January. That's an increase over last year, when two overdoses were reported to the Maryland Poison Center.

An overdose of the drug GHB, sometimes called Blue Nitro, starts off like a bad drunk and can end in seizures, comas, and pneumonia, according to a report to Maryland's newly formed Drug Early Warning System from the poison control center. The chemical has a reputation as a potent date rape drug.

"It's a club scene drug at raves, so it tends to be white suburban teen-agers who have discovered it," said Erin Artigiani, a substance abuse researcher at the University of Maryland, College Park and a staffer at the early warning network.

Users "go into a relaxed kind of daze but it could have some dangerous consequences if people use too much."

The drug has gradually made its way up the East Coast from Florida, where three of the seven factories that manufacture its key ingredient are located, Artigiani said. Three overdoses have been reported in Wicomico County, two in Baltimore County and two in Carroll. Anne Arundel, Harford and Cecil counties each have reported one overdose, according to the poison center.

GHB -- also known as GBL, shorthand for the chemical formula of a key ingredient, or as Blue Nitro, G, Gamma G or Liquid Ecstasy -- has been used as a date rape drug in other states, though officials have received no reports of people taking it unwittingly in Maryland, Artigiani said. It is odorless and colorless and can easily be slipped into a party guest's drink.

In its refined form, GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, debuted in health food stores under brand names such as "Renewtrient," billed as a fat-burner, muscle-builder and a "natural" way to break down inhibitions and enhance sex. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of GHB in 1990 amid reports of dangerous overdoses, including a handful of deaths linked to the drug in the San Francisco Bay area, said Maryland's poison control center.

Legislatures in 26 states have made it a crime to sell GHB, and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is beginning preliminary studies for a similar law, Artigiani said. It's legal to sell the main ingredient, GBL, or gamma butyrolactone, a common industrial solvent used in varnish and wood stripping chemicals. Dozens of Internet sites offer to sell GBL by mail or give instructions for making the drug.

The fast-acting drug is usually purged from the body in six hours or less. In severe cases, emergency room doctors might put victims on respirators and oxygen while they try to speed the flushing process.

The long-term effects of overdoses are unknown, Artigiani said.

Until the drug is better understood, officials recommend keeping a close eye on drinks at parties, and getting a fresh one if tampering is suspected.

"We're not trying to alarm people," Artigiani said. "We're not declaring that there is a crisis. We're just saying it's here and you need to be aware of it."

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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