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Drug Poisonings Seen To Be Rising

August 20, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Michael Tiedemann was pretty prompt for a 15-year-old, so when his blaring alarm clock and a friend’s phone call didn’t rouse him for school, his stepfather got a bad feeling.

Opening the bedroom door, he found Michael dead.

Just lying there in bed, a kind of white froth at his lips and nose the only clue to why he died.

An easy-to-get or mix-it-yourself drug _ a growing craze for teens and young adults _ killed Michael, described by his parents as an honor-roll student who loved karate and wanted to become a doctor.

The drug GHB is luring even people who insist they’d never touch ``real drugs″ like cocaine, who say it provides that relaxed, uninhibited feeling of a few drinks but faster, cheaper and without the telltale alcohol smell.

But GHB, usually sold as a colorless and odorless liquid but sometimes as a powder, is dangerous. It causes sudden comas and seizures. Originally developed as a surgical anesthetic, it depresses breathing.

Hospitals from Maryland to Colorado are reporting GHB poisonings suddenly rising in the past year. Nobody really keeps count, but the government estimates at least 32 people have died and 3,500 others have needed treatment for overdoses since 1990.

Add Michael to that list. The coroner determined he vomited while in a deep, GHB-induced sleep _ and consequently, unable to awaken or turn over like you could during normal sleep, suffocated.

His parents told Michael’s story in hopes others will heed GHB’s dangers, but they contend even Michael’s classmates in Fort Pierce, Fla., still use the drug.

``They just don’t think it will happen to them,″ says his mother, Debbie Alumbaugh. ``If we can get this through to the kids, and one more child does not die, then our child will not have died for nothing.″

Some teens say they were never warned. ``You tell us about marijuana and alcohol every day. You should have told us about GHB,″ a Michigan teen-ager told school officials there last spring after a 15-year-old classmate also died from GHB.

Body builders first abused GHB in the early ’90s. Then, easy to slip into drinks, it became a date-rape drug.

Today, it’s the latest trend, touted as a party drug or even a sex enhancer.

``It is something that just doesn’t seem to go away,″ says John Taylor of the Food and Drug Administration, which banned the drug’s sale nationwide in 1991.

Just this year, the FDA has seized or ordered destroyed thousands of vials of GHB sold under such names as Invigorate, Longevity and Blue Nitro, shut down companies that sold GHB-mixing kits on the Internet, and begun prosecuting distributors.

But the FDA can crack down only on makers or distributors. Twenty states make GHB possession by an individual illegal, and Congress is debating a similar federal law. But enforcement varies widely _ Florida is one of those states, but Michael Tiedemann’s parents complain the police never could ferret out who gave him GHB.

GHB is hard to staunch, because people can mix up quarts at a kitchen sink. Recipes abound on the Internet. All it takes are some common chemicals _ the main ingredient is a paint thinner.

One Internet recipe recommends storing GHB in glass in the refrigerator, a very dangerous recommendation because it’s so easy to confuse with water. A Tennessee woman died in June after apparently unknowingly drinking GHB from a water bottle in a friend’s car.

But experts say most people willingly use GHB, hunting a quick high. It’s de rigeur on some nightclub scenes, where GHB’s potency is made far worse by alcohol.

``It’s very easy to overdose,″ warns Dr. Sandra Frazier of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, whose emergency room in a single week treated six people in their 20s for GHB poisonings at area nightclubs.

Indeed, because one GHB batch can differ greatly from the next, a dose that gave you a mild buzz one day could kill you the next, Frazier warns.

If you know a friend has used GHB, don’t leave them alone, she adds _ you may need to dial 911.

And remember GHB has lots of names. Aside from ``cherry meth,″ ``liquid ecstasy,″ and ``Georgia homeboy,″ it’s also touted by its main ingredient, GBL or gamma butyrolactone _ a paint-thinning chemical that turns into GHB inside the body.

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.

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