Clubs employ medics to fight new drug craze
An industrial solvent known as GBL is taking over from now-illegal GHB, but the risk of overdose is enormous
By Malcolm Fitzwilliams
05 September 2004
A new drug craze sweeping Britain's nightclubs is proving so dangerous that paramedics are being hired to staff recovery rooms at major venues.
The drug - known as GBL - is being blamed for an increase in the numbers of clubbers collapsing into a comatose state on the dance floor. The drug, more commonly used as a cleaning fluid or industrial solvent to produce plastics and pesticides, is currently legal despite calls to ban it. It is increasingly replacing the better-known GHB as the drug of choice for clubbers - not least because GHB was made illegal last year and given a class C drug rating, putting it on a par with cannabis and amphetamines.
Like GHB, the drug brings on a state of euphoria. But it is now clear it is easy to overdose on the drug.
One company, which provides paramedic backup to six leading clubs in London, has told The Independent on Sunday the situation is now so worrying it is investing in cardiac defibrillators, which stimulate and monitor heart beats. Adam Cooper, who co-owns Knightlife Medical Services, said nine clubbers collapsed in the six venues his company attended last weekend. He said: "I have never sent anyone to hospital who has taken ecstasy, cocaine or amphetamines. The only people I have ever sent to hospital have been users of GHB and GBL or who mixed alcohol with those drugs."
GBL is effectively a stronger, more concentrated version of the body-building substance GHB, also known as Liquid X - a "date rape" drug that was outlawed last year by the Home Office. Possession carries a maximum sentence of two years, while possession of GBL is legal.
"We keep the classification of all drugs under constant review. GBL is very new and it is one of many we are looking at," a Home Office spokesman said.
The use of GBL is also causing concern in the gay community. The Gay Times has warned of the dangers of GBL and is campaigning to keep it and GHB out of clubs. According to the paper, one well-known gay event called Trade was barred from its normal London venue, Turnmills, earlier this year owing to the increasing incidence of GBL and GHB abuse. "If you have two or three ambulances coming to your venue every night you don't get your licence when it comes up for renewal," said Liam O'Hare, a manager of a central London club, The End, and a leading figure in the clubbing circuit's campaign to combat drugs.
'Last time I tried it I ended up in hospital'
"John" almost died after overdosing on GBL. He stopped breathing and his heart rate slowed to 40 beats per minute after taking just one millilitre too much.
John, aged 23, said: "I tried GBL two or three times, but the last time I ended up in hospital. My breathing was slowing and my wife called an ambulance. I was taken to hospital because my heart rate was down to 40 beats per minute [about half the normal resting rate].
"I felt very rough the next day and haven't touched it since. The overdose potential with GBL is monstrous. The dosage curve is exceedingly steep. One millilitre is generally all you need, but one-and-a-half millilitres or two and you pass out."
He bought the chemical - £50 for one litre - from a chemical supplier. It's freely available and legal to do so.
"If it's used in a club it comes diluted in a bottle of water," he said, "You shake it and drink it from a shot glass. It's cheap and it's legal and the effects are like being drunk."
John turned to GBL after its derivative GHB was made illegal last year. Friends told him GBL was a legal alternative.
He used to buy GHB in powder form from a chemist in South Africa over the internet. He would dissolve it in water and take it at home to help with his insomnia. He described the drug as a "relaxant" that releases dopamine in the brain. Because it is also naturally produced by the body it is very "gentle", he says, with no adverse after-effects.
He said: "The effect of GHB is a bit like a cross between alcohol and cannabis. It relaxes you and relieves stress.
"As it sedates you it is not an ideal club drug. Some people do it in clubs though, because it's like a long, better drunkenness.
"I did enjoy it. There was no hangover. It dissolves in the body into carbon dioxide and water, so it is not toxic.
"The difference between GBL and GHB is like the difference between hooch and malt whisky. GBL is a lot rougher."
COMA IN A BOTTLE
GBL - gamma butyrolactone - is a colourless, odourless, virtually tasteless liquid. Once ingested, it causes a euphoric, hallucinogenic state as well as drowsiness. When mixed with alcohol or taken in too large a dose its depressant effect is enhanced. This can lead to respiratory problems, unconsciousness, even coma. GBL can become addictive with sustained use. It has been singled out by the US National Drug Intelligence Centre as a contributor to car accidents, sexual assaults and deaths. GBL is available legally as an industrial solvent.