GHB and GBL are two drugs closely related and commonly used for non-medical purposes in club and party environments to induce euphoric feelings. GHB is also sometimes referred to as a “date rape” drug because of its potent sedating effects.
What Is GHB?
GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) is a substance found naturally, but in small amounts, in human cells. It is a neurotransmitter and also influences other chemicals found in the central nervous system, including GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. The effects of GHB are very dose-dependent. A relatively small amount of, say, one gram can produce desirable a desirable outcome, whereas 4-5 grams might cause an individual to slip into a coma.
On the street, GHB is called many names, including liquid E or liquid ecstasy, referring to ecstasy or MDMA, which is not the same drug. Researchers originally developed the substance in the 1960s for use as an anesthetic, but due to adverse side effects, such as seizures, today, it is rarely used for this purpose. It also sometimes used to treat narcolepsy symptoms and help individuals recover from alcohol addiction.
By 1990, GHB was being sold in health food stores to treat insomnia and its growth-hormone-enhancing properties, which made its use attractive to bodybuilders and athletes. But after several poisonings occurred, GHB was promptly removed from the drug market and banned in 1991.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classified GHB in 2000 as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that it was considered to have no approved medical purpose and a high potential for abuse and addiction. Still, as noted, at least one pharmaceutical product that contains GHB (Xyrem®) is available in some instances by prescription only.
Today, GHB is most commonly used as a club/party drug or date-rape drug. As the former, individuals use small doses to reduce inhibitions and induce feelings of well-being. Perhaps for these reasons, it has even been reported to act as an aphrodisiac.
However, in excessive doses, GHB can cause profound sedation and unconsciousness and impair the formation of memories. This fact can make it very effective as a date rape drug, and it is usually found as a tasteless and odorless liquid, making it easy to put in an unsuspecting victim’s drink. The powder form of GHB is not as common as the liquid form, but the usual method of administration is identical.
As a CNS depressant, it can be lethal when taken in combination with alcohol or other depressants, such as benzodiazepines or opioids. The risk for this may be even higher if an individual has ingested the drug without their knowledge. And as with many illicit street drugs, the GHB product’s composition and potency can vary. Moreover, there is often no way a potential user knows precisely how potent a dose may be, heightening the risk of overdose, coma, and death.
Effects of GHB
GHB’s effects on a user can vary and may be different from one person to the next. They may depend on certain factors, such as stomach contents at the time of consumption, whether or not the drug was used in combination with other substances, and individual biology. However, effects usually onset within 10 to 20 minutes, and about 45 to 90 minutes later, they will begin to wane. A user may encounter drowsiness or grogginess for as long as 12 hours following use.
As noted, the physical effects of GHB are highly dose-dependent, and each person may experience a slightly different response, a fact that places users of GHB at an even higher risk. Fortunately, the number of individuals who report having ever used GHB in their lifetime has been gradually declining since around 2006.
Despite GHB’s illicit status, it is still manufactured in clandestine labs and trafficked worldwide. Because the ban has made GHB more challenging to obtain, some persons have begun to seek out its close cousin, GBL, as an alternative.
What Is the GBL Drug?
GBL (gamma-butyrolactone) is what is known as a prodrug of GHB that has a variety of commercial and industrial uses. For example, because of its ability to act as a solvent, it is commonly found in paint strippers, stain removers, and nail polish. Because of its chemical comparability, GBL, although a biologically inactive compound, can be broken down in the body to produce a drug. Furthermore, its effects are virtually imperceptible.
Unfortunately, however, GBL may be as much as three times as potent as GHB, and its effects are experienced much more rapidly. This places users at an even greater risk of overdose than GHB, although the effects of either drug can be severe and can include life-threatening nervous system depression, respiratory failure, coma, and death.
In fact, an accidental overdose of both substances is very easy. Even one-half millimeter of GBL or half of a gram of GHB in excess of a moderate dose can induce a deep sleep, in which the individual could potentially choke on their own vomit and die.
Also, due to memory-impairing properties, the danger of losing track of how much a person has ingested is much higher, especially because it can be mixed unknown to the user in a drink. This method of administration may lead to a greater likelihood of a polysubstance overdose. Moreover, GHL, when mixed in alcohol, can result in compounded effects, and one sip too many can be the difference between feeling euphoric and becoming unconscious.
GBL can be synthesized into GHB by altering the pH level by combining it with another ingredient such as sodium hydroxide. Instructions for this process are readily available online, and some websites even sell the needed materials.
However, GBL’s conversion into GHB is not needed because the body will rapidly metabolize GBL into GHB after ingestion anyway. Because GBL’s effects manifest more rapidly and its much greater potency, GBL itself may have a higher potential for abuse and unwanted mental and physical effects than GHB.
Are GHB and the GHL Drug Addictive?
Both GHB and GBL have a relatively high potential for addiction, mainly if the drugs are used frequently and excessively over an extended period. Even a few weeks of regular use can lead to dependence, resulting in intense cravings, depression, insomnia, and anxiety, unless the individual uses the drug every few hours. These effects are associated with withdrawal and are often uncomfortable enough to compel the person to use more to prevent them.
It is vital to understand that once dependence on GBL/GHB is established, stopping use suddenly or “cold turkey” can lead to severe health risks and even death. Users should be warned that if they feel particularly shaky, sweaty, or anxious when they discontinue using these drugs, they should immediately seek medical treatment. Other symptoms of withdrawal include insomnia, confusion, delirium, and hallucinations.
Getting Help for Drug Abuse and Addiction
For those who abuse GHB or the GBL drug, medical detox and behavioral therapy intended to effectively treat addiction are often required. Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery offers programs that include these services, as well as others that are vital for recovery, including counseling, group support, relapse prevention, mindfulness therapy, and aftercare planning.
Also, individuals who abuse drugs such as GHB and GBL often abuse other substances, such as opioids, benzos, or alcohol. Our programs address substance abuse, as well as other co-existing mental health conditions that contribute to or are worsened by addiction.