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'Designer Drug' Enters Hollywood's Fast Lane : Narcotics: The once-legal steroid substitute GHB was reportedly being passed around the Viper Room on the night River Phoenix died. It is known to cause euphoria, but has also led to seizures and comas.

November 03, 1993|SHAWN HUBLER and STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The incident, like so many of these things, surfaced only later, and in a gossip column at that: Billy Idol, the bad-boy rocker, had collapsed in convulsions outside the trendy club Tatou and had to be rushed to the hospital with two members of his entourage.

His publicist quickly labeled the incident exhaustion. But people close to Idol say it was something else--a once-legal steroid substitute known as GHB that in the last 18 months has become the latest designer drug to fuel the Hollywood fast lane.

This week, GHB turned up again, as the most talked-about tangent to the death of actor River Phoenix, 23, who fell into a seizure and died early Sunday outside another chic club, the Viper Room on Sunset Strip. Coroner's investigators and sheriff's homicide detectives say they have uncovered no solid clues to the cause of the rising star's death. An autopsy Monday was inconclusive.

But in the aftermath of Phoenix's collapse--during which his anguished brother told a 911 operator that the actor may have ingested "Valium or something"--the club grapevine has talked of little but the availability of three drugs: cocaine, an especially pure batch of China White heroin and in particular GHB, the clear liquid that at least one Viper Room patron saw being passed around by the clandestine capful on the night Phoenix died.

"People say it's an amino acid, and it's all natural, but it's really a drug, like liquid Ecstasy," said a 27-year-old club regular who asked that her name not be used. Another said: "I tried it once, and I was never so high in my life. The guy who gave it to me said it was a ginseng drink, but it tasted like salt water. An hour later I couldn't put one leg out in front of me to make it out of the building."

Donald McLearn, a spokesman for the federal Food and Drug Administration, said GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyric acid, is illegal except for research purposes in the United States, although it is used as an anesthetic under doctors' supervision in some parts of Europe. Such restrictions, however, have failed to keep GHB from being sold through mail-order outlets and promoted in health food stores and gyms as a "legal psychedelic" and weight loss aid.

As authorities began to crack down on anabolic steroids, bodybuilders extolled the synthetic GHB as a fat-burning training supplement. Health food aficionados pushed it as an alternative to L-tryptophan, the over-the-counter food supplement that became popular in the late 1980s as a cure for sleeplessness and premenstrual syndrome.

By 1990, however, GHB had been linked to more than 30 incidents of illness in California, Georgia and Florida, ranging from nausea to severe respiratory problems, seizures and comas. In November, 1990, the FDA issued a warning to consumers to discontinue use of the illegally marketed drug, and four months later the U.S. Department of Justice indicted two Bay Area men on charges of manufacturing and distributing GHB.

Nonetheless, authorities say, the substance has not gone away.

"It's a very chic drug to use right now," said Officer Steve Davey, a Glendale police narcotics officer who operates a regional program to keep law enforcement officers abreast of drug trends. Bodybuilders still buy it on the black market as a sleeping aid and as a buffer to the aggressiveness that is a common side effect of steroid use, he said.

It was through that crowd that GHB has crossed over into the club circuit, where users refer to it as Grievous Bodily Harm. Users say it is an alternative to Ecstasy, a hallucinogenic amphetamine. Ecstasy became one of the most popular designer drugs during the late 1980s, but in recent years users have complained that its effects diminish over time and that dealers often counterfeit it with over-the-counter caffeine pills.

GHB, on the other hand, has a different chemical composition, but similar effects of euphoria. Davey said the substance is usually sold in powdered or capsule form but users usually "boil it into a liquid and keep it in their 'fridge." Taken as its purveyors usually instruct--one hour before bed, on an empty stomach to speed up the body's metabolism--a gallon of GHB can last up to eight months, he said, and can be purchased for about $140.

"But a lot of officers don't know about it, or what to look for," he said. Indeed, one veteran law enforcement officer turned to his young sons for information when a reporter queried him about GHB.

"They told me it's a steroid that people say is a super metabolic increaser, the way shots of Vitamin B-12 used to be," the officer said. "But because everybody's rate of metabolism is different, there's no way to gauge how much to take. One capful, and you might feel nothing. Three or four, and it could kill you."

So far, said Dr. Michael Meyers, medical director of the Choices Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Facility at Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, GHB has turned up only on "the small network of the access-to-excess crowd."

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