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GHB Addiction: Once an Anesthetic, Now a Club Drug of Abuse

First developed in the 1960s, GHB – gamma-hydroxybutyrate – has gone through quite an evolution.

This central nervous system depressant originally held promise as a fast-acting anesthetic, but physicians quickly abandoned the drug because it has no painkilling properties and a tendency to cause seizures.

GHB Addiction and Abuse From a Popular Club Drug

In the 1980s, GHB reemerged as an over-the-counter fitness supplement and sleep aid, but was yanked from store shelves by the Food and Drug Administration after dozens and dozens of reported cases of addiction and overdose.

Because the potent sedative is odorless and tasteless, GHB also began showing up in a lot of sexual assault incidents and was classified as another date rape drug.

Unfortunately, a majority of these crimes go unreported because of the loss of memory associated with the drug.

Finally, in 2000, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) moved GHB to its list of Schedule I Narcotics, drugs with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

The drug’s sordid history, however, has not slowed its rise among recreational users, especially on the club scene who routinely claim that GHB is totally harmless.

Anyone with the right mixture of industrial chemicals can make GHB, which is mostly sold online and goes by names like “liquid ecstasy,” “goop,” and “cherry meth” among others. Even though the names may sound fun and harmless, GHB is anything, but safe.

GHB Overdose Effects and Symptoms

While GHB is sometimes sold as a white powder, more often it comes as a clear, odorless, slightly salty liquid that users mix in a variety of beverages.

Its alcohol-like buzz usually kicks in fairly quickly, decreasing a user’s inhibitions, while increasing libido and feelings of euphoria and pleasure.

The drug is incredibly powerful and dangerous, though. When mixed with another central nervous system depressant, such as alcohol, a person can fall into a coma within a matter of minutes.

The effects of the GHB high typically last between three to six hours, depending on the dose a person takes and their body’s physical tolerance to the drug.

GHB has a fairly short half-life, and similar to alcohol, the remnants are broken down by the liver and are generally gone after 12 or so hours.

Overdosing on GHB is relatively common because not everyone responds the same way to a given dosage.

Another reason for the incidence of GHB overdose is that users tend to take more of the drug as they feel the effects wearing off, increasing the likelihood that there are too many of the chemicals remaining in a person’s system.

GHB overdoses can be fatal and require medical attention due to symptoms that can include some of the following:

  • Seizures and coma
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Confusion, blurred vision and disorientation
  • Intense sleepiness
  • Profuse sweating
  • Lightheadedness and dizziness

The danger of slipping into a GHB induced coma is that the central nervous system can shut down the respiratory system, causing a cardiac arrest, similar to opioids.

Overdose victims that are roused can sometimes suffer from hypoxia, a fatal condition where the brain is deprived of oxygen.

GHB Addiction, Dependency, and Withdrawal

Frequent and long-term use of GHB can lead to addiction, according to a 2016 study in the Journal Neuropshychobiology, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to back these findings.

“When we first started treating GHB addiction, we were finding that the majority of people who were using it were in their 20s and were very severely addicted,” Harmen Beurmanjer told The Guardian.

Beurmanjer is a GHB researcher based in Netherlands where GHB abuse has been common for over a decade. “This is not like any other drug, where most addicts are older and have become addicted because of years of abuse. These young people were hooked within weeks,” he added.

One of the reasons GHB users can easily develop an addiction is because physical dependence can take hold, according to Dr. Adam Winstock, founder and director of Global Drug Survey, “after as little a few weeks of daily use.”

Unplanned or unexpected GHB withdrawal has proven deadly and people should seek medical attention if they experience any ill side effects.

GHB withdrawal symptoms can include any of the following:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Spike in blood pressure
  • Intense anxiety
  • Tremors and sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations and delirium

GHB Addiction Treatment

Addiction to GHB is treatable, though people should make sure to seek treatment at a facility with medically supervised withdrawal and detox in order to manage potentially life-threatening symptoms.

Before and during GHB detox, benzodiazepines and the GABA agonist baclofen have shown to be effective for easing or mitigating uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

After detox has been completed, therapeutic addiction treatment strategies for GHB recovery are often successful for overcoming dependence to the drug.

Some of the most effective treatment therapies for GHB addiction include:

These evidence-based treatment modalities can be effective in addressing the underlying causes for addictive behavior and the start of a healthy recovery.

It goes without saying that avoiding GHB use altogether is the surest way to be safe from the harmful effects of this popular club drug.

Greater public awareness and education surrounding the myth that GHB is harmless will hopefully save lives.


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