Incidents involving drug GHB rise sharply

State poison center says reports tripled from 1999 to 2000

October 13, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The drug implicated in the death last month of a University of Maryland, College Park junior apparently is rising in popularity in the state, posing a challenge for health and law enforcement authorities.

The state medical examiner reported last week that GHB - an illegal substance used for body-building effects and as a sleep aid and recreational drug - contributed to the death Sept. 5 of Alexander Klochkoff, 20, of North Bellmore, N.Y., who was found unconscious on the porch of his fraternity house.

Last year, the state's poison center received reports of 61 adverse reactions to GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), nearly three times as many as the year before. Nationally, data just released by the Drug Abuse Warning Network show that emergency episodes involving GHB increased from 20 in 1992 to 4,969 last year, with people 25 and younger making up 60 percent of those cases.

"We have seen an increase in a lot of jurisdictions," said Erin Artigiani, the state's Drug Early Warning System coordinator.

State police have made only three arrests for GHB possession since the drug became illegal under federal law in February last year, said Lt. Vernon Conaway, of the state police drug enforcement unit.

The reason, Conaway said, is that the drug is extremely difficult for police to identify because it most often comes in the form of a clear liquid that could be mistaken for water. Officers test for other drugs at the scene of arrests, but GHB must be sent to a laboratory for identification.

"It's a hidden problem because of its being hard to detect," Conaway said. "We're training troopers on what to look for."

Campus police at College Park say they've apparently come across the drug only once in recent years, when they arrested a student last year after finding a host of drugs and drug paraphernalia in his dorm room. The drugs included what officers suspected was GHB, but the lab they sent the liquid to was unable to test for it, said campus police Capt. Paul Dillon.

"We're aware of it, but I wouldn't say we're on the lookout for it," Dillon said. "These drugs are evolving and coming out in so many forms."

GHB is a central nervous system depressant that can cause drowsiness, seizures and coma. It first gained popularity among body-builders, who bought it at health food stores for its supposed muscle-enhancing effects. The Food and Drug Administration banned its sale in 1990, but possession wasn't made illegal until last year, by which point it had been linked to 71 deaths.

Its sedative effects have spawned its use as a date-rape drug, said Trinka Porrata, a retired Los Angeles police officer who runs a GHB crisis hot line. It is also used as a sleep aid by business people, pilots and athletes, who might have difficulty sleeping while they're on the road, she said. College and high school students use GHB as a cheap substitute for alcohol, she said.

The drug can be bought on the Internet or made with household chemicals. Users can become extremely dependent but have difficulty getting into detoxification programs because many of the programs don't recognize GHB as addictive, Porrata said.

"I consider it the most dangerous drug I saw in my years as a cop," she said.

Neither police nor university officials have said why Klochkoff, a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and former high school football star, might have been using GHB.

In a national survey on drug use at colleges last year, 15 of 900 respondents at College Park reported having used GHB. State data show that the drug has also surfaced at other Maryland colleges, Artigiani said.

In the week before the medical examiner reported the GHB link to Klochkoff's death, UMCP President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. said the university would respond quickly if the findings suggested a substance abuse problem on campus.

"We're very candid and up front," Mote said. "We don't put things indoors. If we have a problem, we recognize that openly."

This week, Leah McGrath, the campus coordinator for alcohol and drug prevention, said her office had produced a flier about GHB to answer questions raised by students since last week's report. The office had previously been warning students about GHB, she said.

Still, student awareness of the drug is limited. Sophomore Kevin Darmody said that he had to attend a training session about drugs to become an auxiliary campus police officer but that it did not mention GHB.

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