Sip of Fools
John Johnston

Sip of Fools

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.


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

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.

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."

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."

Ellison was incredulous. He went back inside, tracked down the club's manager and part owner, Demetrius Bassoukos, told him there was a young man convulsing outside the club and asked Bassoukos why the club's other staff members weren't calling an ambulance. "I got a very kind of non-response, so I just went ahead and called 911 myself," Ellison remembers.

By the time Ellison got back outside, three or four of the victim's friends were clustered around him. They said his name was Corey and that he'd recently taken a lot of GHB, along with a hit of Ecstasy. "They seemed a little upset that an ambulance had been called, and they kept asking if they could get him out of there and just take him home and put him to bed," Ellison says. "The club personnel told them no, because the ambulance was already on its way."

Besides, Corey didn't look like he was ready for nighty-night time.

"It took about fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get there, and during that whole time, I was helping the doorman try to keep this guy on his feet, and he was spastic and fighting us like crazy," Ellison says. "His eyes were wide and panicked. He would frequently look all frantic, not appearing to register his surroundings."

Such semi-conscious violence is often an initial symptom of a super-severe GHB overdose. A 1999 study by emergency-room doctors at San Francisco General Hospital reported, "One peculiar characteristic of acute GHB toxicity is that the subject often demonstrates extreme combativeness, despite profound CNS [central nervous system] depression."

When the ambulance arrived, Corey did not go quietly. "It took seven people, including the paramedics, about five minutes to get him on the stretcher," says Ellison. "He was thin but really strong."

The paramedics told the crowd that they were taking Corey to the emergency department at Denver Health Medical Center. Denver Health officials refuse to confirm or deny the admission of a drug-overdose victim early that morning. But whichever hospital Corey was taken to -- and Denver Health is the closest to Amsterdam -- he likely wound up with a breathing tube down his throat, perhaps after receiving a shot of a paralytic to quiet his muscles if he was still spastic.

"The only treatment [for GHB overdose victims] really is supportive," says Dr. Stephen Cantrill, associate director of emergency medicine at Denver Health. "There are no drugs to reverse the effects of GHB like there are with opiates. It's just a tincture of time. But if you intubate them and support them and monitor them, by and large, they do very well. You let the body burn off the GHB, and they eventually wake up and you extubate them and they go home, hopefully a little smarter -- though sometimes not, I'm afraid."

Cantrill says it's impossible to know precisely how many GHB overdose cases his department handles, because once the victims regain consciousness, they frequently refuse to acknowledge that they took any illegal drugs. "Some will actually confirm it once they're awake again, some won't," he says. "But when they come in with green hair from one of the clubs downtown and they're comatose, and two hours later they're awake and sitting up and talking to you, chances are very good it was a GHB ingestion."

While Corey was in the emergency room, Allen Ellison was attending what he terms an "after-after-hours party" at a private residence in the 200 block of Monaco Parkway. He says he arrived to find Bassoukos there as well. (Bassoukos did not respond to repeated phone messages and notes left for him at Amsterdam seeking comment for this story.)

"I approached Demetri and expressed my concern at the apparent hesitation of the club staff to call an ambulance," Ellison says. "My concern was that the club hesitated to call 911 for fear of repercussions to the club itself. But in talking with Demitri about it, he explained that the club has a procedure that is condoned by the police department and used by other clubs -- and that is to take a suspected GHB overdosed clubber outside into the cooler air and to closely monitor them while attempting to locate a responsible party, which basically means their friends. And then, if after fifteen minutes the clubber shows no improvement, then the responsible party is encouraged to drive them directly to the nearest hospital, although Demitri said that since most overdoses aren't fatal, many prefer to just take the overdosed clubber home and put damp cloths on their forehead."

(Detective John White, a spokesman for the Denver Police Department, says he's unaware of any such agreement between Denver police and local club owners on the treatment of GHB overdoses. "That sounds a little far-fetched to me," White says.)

After his conversation with Bassoukos, Ellison went home and wrote a two-page, single-spaced open letter titled "GHB Overdoses, Education, and Appropriate Medical Responses," which he then copied off and freely distributed at PrideFest. Ellison says he made sure to put his letter in the hands of "the representatives of every organization with a booth, several state legislators, a city councilwoman and someone from the police department."

Ellison's communiqué described the GHB overdose at Amsterdam that morning, as well as the club's reaction and his subsequent conversation with Bassoukos. In his letter, Ellison asserted that "GHB use is on the rise [in Denver], and it is a very tricky and difficult drug. Taking a cap full of GHB may routinely be fine for a club-goer, but the very same cap full two weeks later can result in a coma." He closed with a litany of policy suggestions for public officials, club owners and gay activists in Denver.

Among his suggestions: "Identify the trend of GHB use in Denver, and especially within the Denver gay population"; "create a community conversation between gay-centric organizations, hospitals, club managers and Denver officials to identify and address proper responses when a clubber overdoses"; and "engage in a public-relations campaign to raise public awareness about the fickleness of the drug, the possible consequences, and appropriate responses when an overdose occurs."

Cantrill argues that there is only one response that qualifies as appropriate: Get the victim to a hospital, fast.

"If someone's comatose, they really do need to have a professional evaluation," he says. "I would hate to have someone die because the doormen or club owners are trying to avoid having to call an ambulance. Sure, it's bad publicity to have an ambulance come screaming up to your club, but it's also really bad publicity to have somebody die."

Home-brewing GHB is so elementary that the process makes cooking up crystal meth in a bathtub look like a feat of genius. Not counting water, there are only two ingredients in the GHB recipe, which is widely available on the Internet. One is lye. The other is a popular bodybuilding supplement that is also a component in many industrial solvents. Mix the two together and poof: GHB.

"The main thing you have to make sure of is to dissolve all the lye," says Rainman (his club-culture nickname), 26, a low-level GHB maker and dealer who lives in Boulder. "When people swallow lye, bad things happen."

Rainman's GHB laboratory consists of a hot plate, a scale, a packet of litmus paper, a measuring cup and a Pyrex saucepot. He estimates the raw ingredients for a liter of GHB costs him three dollars. He sells his liters for $150, yielding a profit of nearly 5,000 percent per liter, each of which takes him about half an hour to concoct.

"I basically just make enough for myself, to have around for parties or for when people come back to the house after a night out," he says. "I probably go through a bottle a month in terms of personal consumption between me and my friends and their friends plus friends of their friends, and I don't take money for it if someone's doing it at my place. In terms of selling, I probably sell about one bottle every week or so."

GHB is naturally colorless and looks like water. Which is why Rainman dyes the GHB he makes bright blue with food coloring. "You wouldn't believe how many horror stories there are of someone who's drunk and they see a big glass of GHB at a party and they start chugging it because they think it's water or vodka or whatever," he says. "That's the way people get themselves in bad shape on GHB. Either that or they're drunk and on Ecstasy and snorting coke and smoking weed and, hey, they've never tried GHB before, but they figure, why not put a little cherry on top of their party sundae?"

Another reason Rainman sells only blue GHB is so that it can't be used to facilitate date rape in the form of a Mickey Finn. "I don't need some frat boy slipping stuff I make into some sorority babe's wine cooler, trying to knock her out," he says. "Believe me, I use a hell of a lot of dye. It turns about any drink at a bar you can think of this sort of sick, puke purple."

In March 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into federal law the Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act, which reclassified GHB as a schedule I controlled substance, subject to the same restrictions and criminal penalties as cocaine and heroin. The new law was named after a fifteen-year-old high school sophomore in Detroit who died in January 1999 after two male friends poured a large amount of GHB into her soda while they were all at the movies. Those two boys, who were eighteen at the time, are now serving five-year sentences for manslaughter.

Before the passage of the Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act, the legality of GHB was a murky issue. It was explicitly illegal in some states but not others, although large-volume dealers were occasionally prosecuted under non-specific "dangerous drug" statutes. Colorado banned the drug in 1999, one year after a Denver man was arrested for operating a GHB mail-order business, selling do-it-yourself GHB kits over the Internet for $162.50 per kit to customers in states where possession of GHB was clearly illegal. The man admitted having sold forty or fifty kits a day and told authorities that he'd netted $300,000 in less than a year.

Rainman says he made "probably about four or five grand" selling GHB last year. "I spend it as fast as I make it on plane tickets and whatnot, so it's hard to know," he adds. He suffers no guilt over breaking the law, though his rationale is peculiar: "We're all breaking the law when it comes to GHB, because we're all in possession of it all the time."

What he means is that GHB naturally occurs in the human body, making it the only Schedule I drug that can be found inside every cell of every American. GHB helps the body regulate sleep, as well as the release of growth hormones. Until the Food and Drug Administration banned over-the-counter sales of GHB in 1990, it was available in most health food stores, marketed both as a sleep aid and a muscle-builder.

"It definitely will put you to sleep," says Rainman. "I know a lot of people who do G to come down from coke or speedy E [Ecstasy] because they think G is better for you than Valium. And I know some guys who take it to lift weights on because they think it's better for you than steroids. But most of the people I know who take G, including myself, do it purely to get high."

When he and his friends are out at a club doing GHB, Rainman says, they write "G" on the back of their hands with a marker.

That way, if they pass out, people will know not to call for help.


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