Sip of Fools

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

Grinning like a hyena, Frack, who is dressed only in a bathrobe, snaps his fingers in front of Martin's face once, twice, then says, "How's it going, man?"

Martin dreamily pivots toward his couch mate. "Fuzzies," he replies.

Frack rustles around in a Burger King bag at his feet and comes up with a carton of French fries. "Want one?" he asks. "A little grease might fix you up."

Party pooper: Dr. Stephen Cantrill thinks that anyone who's overdosed on GHB belongs in an emergency room.
John Johnston
Party pooper: Dr. Stephen Cantrill thinks that anyone who's overdosed on GHB belongs in an emergency room.


Read a Phoenix New Times related feature story about the drug trade in Phoenix's club and rave scene, "Evil Empire."

It's way too late for a fast-food antidote. Martin's eyelids flutter and his muscles go slack. Losing consciousness, he slowly slumps sideways on the couch like a blow-up doll pierced by a needle. Frack saves the watermelon before it tumbles to the floor and sets it on a nearby workbench. He then retrieves a burger from his sack and takes a big bite. This isn't the first time he's seen a GHB user fish out.

Frack is from New Orleans. For three years running, New Orleans has ranked highest among U.S. cities for GHB-related emergency-room admissions per capita.

Since 2000, Denver has placed second, and it's on pace through the first six months of this year to take over the number-one spot. (San Francisco, Dallas and Miami round out the top five.)

Emergency-room admissions are not a wholly reliable statistic in gauging the level of GHB use in any city, however, because the vast majority of GHB overdoses go unreported. The widely held, if misguided, wisdom in drug culture is that GHB overdoses are relatively safe. They are certainly common. Unlike other street drugs such as cocaine and Ecstasy, GHB has an extremely narrow overdose threshold. The difference between getting high and passing out can be as small as a tablespoon, and the potency of black-market batches varies so wildly that many GHB users regard periodically knocking themselves out with an overdose as a normal part of doing the drug. Fortunately for them, GHB also differs from harder street drugs in that overdoses are rarely fatal.

There have been 328 GHB overdoses and poison-control-center calls logged in Denver since January 2000, but no GHB deaths have ever been reported in this city. Typically, GHB overdose victims lapse into a comatose state for up to four hours, then bizarrely snap out of it, feeling fine. In medical terminology, they "spontaneously resolve."

There have been tragic exceptions.

Since 1995, at least 162 young people have died in this country after taking GHB. Hundreds more have died in Europe, mostly in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, where the drug is still quasi-legal and use of it considerably more widespread.

Earlier this year, a sixteen-year-old boy and a 28-year-old woman who did not know one another but were both from London died hours apart after overdosing on GHB at the same nightclub in Zaandam, a town in the Netherlands just north of Amsterdam. Their deaths prompted a national debate on drug safety and legality in a country famed for its libertarian tendencies. The editors at the influential Dutch newspaper Volkskrant branded GHB a public danger and called for a crackdown, prompting the mayor of Zaandam to revoke the operating license of the club where the deaths occurred.

Back in the junkyard, the two strippers bet the low odds and win. They don't call an ambulance, and Martin doesn't go into cardiac arrest, although he certainly looks like fodder for an editorial page, sitting propped between two exotic dancers, breathing erratically and blowing spit bubbles. As she chats with Frack, one of the strippers periodically holds a hand over Martin's mouth to make sure he's still breathing and checks his pulse at his wrist.

Twenty minutes after he goes under, Martin spontaneously resolves. He grunts, lifts his head to take a look around, then abruptly leans forward and wipes the watermelon goo off his face with an oily shop rag. He does not ask what happened. Instead, he rises gingerly to his feet, whisks a cigarette from the pack in his breast pocket and lights it on the first try. "All right, then," he says. "Let's get this party started."

Allen Ellison is hardly an anti-drug crusader. Five in the morning on Sunday, June 23, found him among the sweaty throng on the packed dance floor at Amsterdam Afterhours, where every Friday and Saturday night, the cocaine and ecstasy-fueled merry-making begins at midnight. The events Ellison witnessed at Amsterdam just before sunrise that day, however, have inspired him to launch a one-man public-information campaign on the dangers of GHB. His guiding philosophy is "Just Say Know."

Like many inside the warehouse-district after-hours club that Sunday, Ellison was in the climactic throes of a weekend of partying leading up to Denver PrideFest, the gay-pride festival and parade scheduled to begin later that morning at Cheesman Park. Looking to cool off, the 36-year-old information architect left the dance floor and walked outside through a side door, where he found Amsterdam's doorman struggling to keep hold of a young man who was convulsing violently in the bouncer's arms.

"This kid looked like he was having a full-blown seizure," Ellison says. "He obviously needed help. I went over and tried to assist him, and right away I asked the doorman if anyone had called an ambulance, and he said no. I asked why, and he indicated to me that it was against the club's policy."

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