GHB, aka "liquid ecstasy"

Dear Alice,

A lot of my friends have made the switch from Ecstasy to GHB. I do X sometimes when I go to clubs, and this is fine for me. I'm just wondering what GHB is, and if I'm missing a good time by sticking with tradition.

—X is Enough

Dear X is Enough,

Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) is often called "liquid ecstasy" because like X, it inspires a tendency to be touchy-feely and relaxed. However, its overall impact is more sedative than ecstasy, as GHB is a powerful relaxant and sleep-inducer, whereas X is an activity-inducing amphetamine. In fact, X is sometimes taken with GHB to counteract GHB's mellowing qualities. GHB and metabolites do occur in very small quantities naturally in the human body and some very limited use of the substance has been approved in the U.S. to treat narcolepsy. Ecstasy and GHB (outside of its limited FDA-approved purposes) are illegal. Here's the scoop on GHB.

GHB, first synthesized in 1960, was used initially as an anesthetic. This use quickly ended because of GHB's lack of analgesic (pain-relieving) properties and its tendency to cause seizure-like activity. GHB came back on the scene again in the late 1980s as a fat-burning supplement for bodybuilders and dieters, but a corresponding rise in GHB-related deaths caused the FDA to make its manufacture and sale illegal. Since then, GHB has been used illicitly as a party drug, prevalent at dance and music clubs as an alternative to ecstasy and amphetamines. In the 1980s, ecstasy became illegal around the same time as GHB, which was banned for similar complications of high-risk side effects and death. Non-medical possession of GHB became illegal in the U.S. in 2000.

The exact effects of GHB can vary, but those who use GHB generally experience relief from anxiety and increased relaxation, euphoria, and a higher sex drive. As the dose increases, however, the sedative effect of GHB can intensify and lead to sleep, coma, or death. Other factors that can change how GHB affects you are how much you take, the strength of the dose, and your size, weight, and overall health. Overdoses of GHB can also cause memory loss, reduced heart rate, seizures, insomnia, anxiety, and tremors, and when mixed with alcohol, it can result in nausea and difficulty breathing. If mixed with alcohol or benzodiazepines, there is a greater chance of GHB overdose; and if combined with amphetamines or ecstasy there's a greater risk of seizures. With regular use, GHB can cause serious memory problems, heart disease, hallucinations, extreme anxiety, and respiratory issues in the long term.

If your friends are enjoying experimenting with a new drug, you might be tempted to join in, especially to experience a different kind of high. But, they can also bring on new lows and risks. It may be helpful to think about why you're considering trying GHB. Is this something that you're excited about trying and want to do? Or are you only considering it because your friends are doing it? If you're considering joining them, you may consider what types of harm reduction methods you can take, such as being with people you trust, using a clean syringe if you're injecting the drug, testing for fentanyl to avoid consumption of any unintended drugs, and not taking multiple substances at the same time. All substance use comes with risks, but taking these approaches can help you to reduce your risks. 

Last updated Feb 17, 2023
Originally published Oct 17, 1997

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