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The Age
By Lyall Johnson, July 26 2002

Five risked death from fantasy drug

The Alfred Hospital has warned of the dangers of the illicit drug known as fantasy after a spate of overdoses last weekend resulted in five people being placed on life support.

Fantasy is the synthetic agent gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), commonly referred to as grievous bodily harm. Mistakenly believed to enhance sexual awareness, it actually switches off brain-stem function and shuts down the respiratory system when taken in large doses.

Four men and one woman aged 18-30 were admitted to the Alfred during the weekend, either unconscious or suffering serious breathing difficulties. Two had been at the same nightclub.

The director of emergency services at the Alfred, Mark Fitzgerald, said the unusually high number of cases was particularly worrying because it meant there were more people taking GHB who were unfamiliar with its effects.

The hospital usually sees one case of GHB overdose every few months.

Professor Fitzgerald said the current batch must be particularly strong or of unpredictable quality. He also said GHB was especially dangerous when taken with alcohol, as it had been in the weekend's incidents.

He said studies had shown that 70 per cent of people who used the drug had either been treated in hospital for its effects or knew someone who had. Unlike heroin, there is no antidote for the drug.

Professor Fitzgerald said the hospital was trying to make the community aware of the drug's dangers.

"None of these people are bad people, I think they are just inexperienced," he said. "They have been given an agent, they are unsure of its effects... and they have had near-death experiences."

All the people treated were discharged about a day after admission.
GHB is a naturally occurring carbohydrate but its synthetic form was developed in the 1960s as an anaesthetic. Its use was short-lived, however, because of its unpredictable nature, Professor Fitzgerald said.

GHB was directly related to the collapse of 10 people at a Gold Coast nightclub in 1996 and was initially thought to have caused the death of Hollywood actor River Phoenix in 1993. Subsequent medical reports, however, declared that he died of a cocktail of drugs.

The drug is currently being sold in Melbourne in a liquid form.

Professor Fitzgerald said GHB was sometimes referred to as "liquid ecstasy" but stressed that it was not chemically related to the popular illicit dance party drug.




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