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They arrived from the Netherlands in a small cardboard box. Two bottles and a one-page disclaimer, cushioned by Styrofoam peanuts sticky from leaked chemicals. One bottle was filled with small white crystal pellets and marked "Kalium Hydroxide." The other contained a clear liquid and was labeled "Gamma Butyrolactone." The skull-and-crossbones symbol for poison was stamped on the homemade label.
The disclaimer said the shipper cannot be held responsible for "misuse" of the product, and the buyer is presumed not to be a law enforcement officer.
The contents of the bottles are, actually, not illicit. Not quite. One crucial ingredient is missing.
The package is known on the Internet as a GHB Kit, two legal chemicals that can be mixed together with tap water to form Gamma-hydroxybutyrate--a Schedule I restricted drug in Arizona, just like heroin or cocaine.
The dynamic duo arrived two weeks after the kit was ordered online. The cost: $100 for roughly 100 doses. Directions for making GHB are not included. If you don't know the recipe, well, the supplier isn't going to hold your hand and walk you into a potential felony.
For the uninitiated, GHB is a former health-store mainstay used for years by bodybuilders before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned its over-the-counter sale in 1990. When River Phoenix overdosed at a Los Angeles nightclub in 1993, Newsweek erroneously reported that GHB may have caused his death, a mistake that boosted GHB's popularity among coastal clubgoers.
Since then, it has become a controversial but common hypnotic in the rave scene. Drug enforcement agencies call GHB a "date rape drug," and say it's responsible for several deaths. Proponents say it's useful in treating insomnia and alcoholism and has been unfairly maligned by the FDA, noting that no deaths were attributed to GHB until after it was banned.
The consensus among users is that both spins are true. GHB's mildly euphoric effect can be enjoyed without harm, but mixing the drug with alcohol, taking more than the recommended dosage or using it in a public place can be very dangerous.
Jerry Oldsen, a drug recognition expert with the state Department of Public Safety, says use of the drug is on the rise among Valley teens. In February, a Cactus Shadows High School student passed out in class from taking GHB made from an Internet recipe.
Recipes for many synthetic drugs can be found online, but GHB is the first to also be offered in a do-it-yourself kit--just add water.
"Two years ago, the only guy selling kits was selling them for $250," says one longtime provider who requested anonymity. "First I explained on newsgroups how to find the chemicals and how to make it yourself. Then several people asked me to send them the products, so that's what I did--only I charged $30."
A former alcoholic who says GHB helped him overcome his addiction, the seller shipped kits to the U.S. until last April.
"I received an e-mail from FDA saying, 'Stop shipping to the USA or else,'" he says. "Some of my parcels were seized by U.S. customs. They were saying that each bottle I sent was an illegal medication. Even though the chemicals are legal in the USA, I think they become illegal when they are shipped by me. I get 20 to 30 e-mails every day from Americans begging me to send kits to them anyway."
The FDA works with customs, local law enforcement agencies and Internet service providers to disrupt traffic of GHB Kits. As a result, the kits are becoming tougher to find, and domestic online vendors are nearly nonexistent since the FDA arrested Jose Perez-Menchaca in September.
Perez-Menchaca ran a GHB Kit supply operation out of Florida called Bondtech-Klebrig Corp. Shortly before his arrest, he bragged to an FDA undercover agent he made $300,000 selling kits online. Other domestic GHB sites, such as www.khemical.com and www.interchem.com, have subsequently folded.
Surviving sites no longer even use the term GHB, except when advertising on Internet newsgroups. Instead, they sell "entheogenic reaction" kits, referring to the rather violent fusion caused when mixing the three primary ingredients in GHB. The Canada-based North American Lab Services, for instance, has a professional-looking Web site selling high-priced potassium or sodium-based "chemical kits," yet manages to never once mention the magic abbreviation.
"You have to analyze how the product is being promoted," says Brad Stone, a spokesperson with the FDA. "If a reasonable person can make a judgment that either implicitly or explicitly they were promoting the use of an unapproved drug, they can make the case that it's a violation of the law. It's impossible to say how much of it is going on out there because the Internet is so vast and our resources so finite."
On the drug chemistry newsgroups, GHB users who've mastered brewing the drug from scratch are practically rooting for the feds.
"Making GHB is easy," writes one, "and if you don't know enough about chemistry to make it without a kit, you shouldn't be messing with it."
Most sites that are still accepting new orders claim they don't ship to the U.S., but kits are still out there for the persistent. The owner of one new site, Jan's Page, actually got into the GHB business because of the crackdown.
"I saw that a few months ago there were like four kit suppliers on the Net, and now they are all gone," says Jan. "The FDA is making it easier for me to start this business because they have caused all the [U.S.] sites to shut down."
Another operative site, the South Africa-based Biogenesis, is taking no chances. It's stopped all shipments to the U.S., and stresses in its F.A.Q. that its product "is sold for research/analytical purposes only, not for human consumption."
It then adds, "However, the normal human dose is in the range of 0.5g to 4g. It is generally recommended to start with the smallest dose and build up slowly."
Contact James Hibberd at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org