Sip of Fools

GHB helps you dance 'til you drop. Dead, maybe.

On the flatbed trailer is a bed of nails, and on the bed of nails is a contortionist who is performing oral sex -- on himself.

"Damn, look at that," says Martin, a 26-year-old DJ at a topless bar in Denver. "That boy's flexible and stiff." Martin goofs on his own joke, then eases a small, clear plastic bottle loaded with electric blue liquid from the front pocket of his sagging jeans. He raises the bottle to eye level and toggles it back and forth to judge the volume of the potion inside.

"I'm gonna do the rest of this, so keep an eye on me," Martin says to one of the three strippers who have accompanied him tonight to a junkyard near 52nd Avenue and Steele Street.

John Johnston
Stop the madness: Allen Ellison wants to educate club-goers to the dangers of GHB.
John Johnston
Stop the madness: Allen Ellison wants to educate club-goers to the dangers of GHB.

It is nearly 1 a.m. on a Tuesday in late June. Martin and the strippers are four members of a crowd of over 150 that has gathered among the grimy husks of cars to witness a performance by the KnowNothing Family Zirkus Zideshow, a New Orleans-based troupe of semi-professional circus freaks.

The late hour plus the clinched jaws, sweaty brows and jittery eyes of many of the souls roaming the junkyard indicate they're high on methamphetamine or LSD or both. Martin's drug of choice is a bit more exotic: The blue liquid in the bottle is GHB, short for gamma-hydroxybutyrate, an illegal hypnotic that is enjoying a millennial surge in popularity among recreational drug users in the Denver area.

Martin flips the nozzle on the bottle's cap to the "go" position, kneels down, fixes his mouth over the nozzle, and then tilts his head back and squirts. He swallows hard, then croaks, "Chaser." One of the strippers passes Martin a beer, which he hastily drains.

"Man, that shit's nasty," he says, standing up. "Tastes like squid piss."

"Like you know what squid piss tastes like," the stripper says, giggling.

Martin rattles the empty bottle at her. "Tastes like this shit right here."

GHB is cheap and simple to make. The street price for a liter of GHB, enough for more than a hundred doses, is a mere $150. Hotel-shampoo-sized bottles containing five to six doses can be purchased in local dance clubs for as little as ten bucks. As Martin says, GHB is slimy and salty on the tongue, leading many users to swirl it into a glass of fruit juice or a cocktail -- although mixing GHB with liquor introduces a second bullet to an already deadly game of pharmaceutical Russian roulette.

The only hard evidence of GHB's growing prevalence in Denver is the slow but steady rise in emergency-room GHB overdose admissions during the last three years. But there is anecdotal evidence as well. Patrons of certain Denver after-hours spots and underground parties are being offered the drug with increasing frequency, and the sight of a comatose, twitching GHB user "fishing out" in a corner is no longer a rarity in the strobe-lit nightclubs of this city.

GHB is a capricious playmate. In small, carefully regulated doses, it induces a mild state of euphoria and a warm, tingly body high. It can be an intense aphrodisiac. It can also render you unconscious with the "party's over" finality of a Lennox Lewis uppercut should you take a bit too much, as Martin is soon to demonstrate.

Roughly ten minutes after draining the dregs in his bottle and telling his ladies to watch over him, Martin is riddled with bliss. "I got the fuzzies," he keeps saying. "I got the fuzzies." His speech is slurred. When he tries to light a cigarette, he misses with three passes of the match, then stops and stares into the flame, transfixed, until it burns down to his thumb and index finger. Martin slowly shakes out the match and tries to take a drag on his cigarette, which is still not lit. He then turns the Playboy hat on his head sideways and says, "Man, it's getting funky up in here."

Indeed it is.

Atop the flatbed trailer's makeshift stage, the aforementioned contortionist is resting on his back on the bed of nails, with a watermelon balanced on his stomach. The sideshow's ringleader, Doctor Eric Von KnowNothing, stands over him with a broadsword poised overhead. Unleashing a battle cry, the good doctor brings down the sword in a flashing arc, neatly cleaving the watermelon in two. The audience roars its approval. Martin, who has somehow made his way to the front of the crowd, kneels down and collects half the watermelon, which has rolled off the stage. He then lurches aimlessly through the crowd, scooping chunks of watermelon pulp into his mouth. Juice and seeds dribble down his chin.

Martin plops down on a ratty couch in the junkyard's office next to "The Creature Known Only as 'Frack," a bald and thoroughly pierced sideshow performer. Earlier in the evening, Frack wowed the crowd by eating live crickets and then dangling a fifteen-pound weight from his pierced penis. But now it's Frack's turn to be entertained by the spectacle of Martin, who is staring into his clawed-out watermelon half as if it were a looking glass in Wonderland.

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