The great GHB-rape scare

In Santa Barbara, the bizarre case of a Max Factor heir accused of sexual assault has refocused attention on the dangers of the drug that makes rape easy.

Published August 17, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Slipping someone a Mickey sounds so retro -- like a line of dialogue right out of a '50s B-movie. But women in the verdant, seaside college town of Santa Barbara, Calif., are discovering that getting slipped a Mickey is not just some quaint phrase from their grandmothers' day. Because of a scare caused by the so-called date-rape drug, GHB, they fear that an evening in the city's State Street entertainment district could lead to sexual assault at the hands of a nameless, faceless perpetrator.

Colorless, odorless with a slightly salty taste, as little as a few drops of GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, can render a person unconscious for four hours or more, leaving them with little or no memory of events. It can also kill you. Authorities contend that it was GHB that Andrew Luster, the handsome heir to the Max Factor fortune, used to make his victims helpless in order to rape them.

Luster's in the pokey with bail set at $10 million awaiting a pretrial hearing next week. The Ventura County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating the case, says there are three confirmed victims. But there could be as many as 15 more. Sheriff's detectives seized videotapes and photographs of Luster having sex with numerous, apparently unconscious women, most of whom remain unidentified.

The case offers a stark illustration of why GHB may be the new weapon of choice for sexual predators. Easy to make and cheap to purchase (on the street, a "dose" of GHB can go for as little as $5 or $10), GHB makes rape much easier. Instead of all the effort involved in abducting someone at gun or knife point, less than a teaspoon of GHB can render the woman of your choice vulnerable to assault within 10 to 20 minutes. Not only won't she fight back, she won't even remember being attacked, and may not recall your face at all. Plus GHB exits the body within 12 hours of being taken. So by the time the victim realizes what has happened (if she realizes what's happened), there'll be no evidence that GHB was involved. Unless, of course, the rapist was unwise enough to videotape the event.

Luster, who by some accounts may be worth as much as $30 million, pleaded not guilty on Aug. 1 to 40 counts of kidnapping and rape. His lawyer has told the press that any sexual acts caught on video were 100 percent consensual. Sheriff's detectives have yet to identify the presence of GHB in any of the items obtained from the raid on Luster's home. They believe GHB was involved because Luster supposedly mentioned the drug to his victims and because of the modus operandi they say they've uncovered.

"The whole case started when one of the victims came forward and said she believed she'd been drugged and raped the weekend before," explains Eric Nishimoto, a spokesman for the sheriff's department. "She was actually accompanied by a male companion. It turned out that they were both drugged after meeting Luster in a bar in Santa Barbara. He was in [Luster's house] when the rape occurred, but he doesn't recall anything either."

After investigators raided Luster's beachfront home, another victim came forward. Detectives recognized her from one of the videotapes, showed the videotape to her and asked if she gave consent. She claims not to have been aware of the incident on tape. The Ventura County District Attorney also added a Jane Doe to the list of victims, based on videos seized.

Nishimoto says that this bizarre, high-profile case is Ventura County's first real dose of GHB-related crime. But Santa Barbara County, the home of the University of California at Santa Barbara and several smaller colleges, is more familiar with the advent of GHB as a party drug and as a date-rape drug.

Lt. Nick Katzenstein, spokesman for the Santa Barbara Police Department, says GHB complaints began to surface two years ago and have been increasing. In 1999, as many as 10 young women complained of spiked drinks and possible sexual assault. But no case was made since the victims could not identify the person responsible. Santa Barbara also had one case of GHB-related overdose when a young woman knowingly took GHB in combination with alcohol. And, according to Katzenstein, there was a suspected GHB-related rape of a young woman by two male students at a local photography college. The case has for the moment been dropped because, once again, the woman had no memory beyond being in a bar with friends at one moment and waking up in a strange home the next.

"These kids are manufacturing it in their dorms," says Katzenstein. "It seems to be the new and exciting drug right now."

Santa Barbara and Ventura counties' woes mirror anecdotal evidence of GHB's increasing link to sexual assault throughout California. On Aug. 13, 1999, a San Francisco jury found a 45-year-old local business owner guilty of spiking the drinks of four women with either GHB or Rohypnol in order to rape them. And in April, San Diego County ponied up $100,000 for an awareness campaign aimed at high school and college students that emphasized the use of drugs and alcohol as tools of rape.

Nationwide, there's been a staggering rise in the GHB's link to E.R. cases -- from 55 in 1994 to 1,282 in 1998 according to the Department of Health and Human Services. A recent article published by the Food and Drug Administration titled "The Death of the Party: All the Rave, GHB's Hazards Go Unheeded," cites 45 deaths associated with the drug, but the DEA was unable to confirm that number or offer any other. As for GHB rapes, even less specific information is known.

"The cases that involve suspected drugging started to emerge in 1995," explains Gail Abarbanel, founder and director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. "At this point, some people think that GHB is being used more often than Rohypnol, but it's hard to tell. There aren't statistics on the prevalence of (GHB-rape) cases. The reason is that the cases are not separately tracked by law enforcement. So it's hard to get a handle on it, except through anecdotal reports."

Abarbanel's Rape Treatment Center provides treatment and victim services and is also responsible for a national campus rape program that distributes literature in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice. Abarbanel says she's disturbed by GHB's rise.

"It's a very cruel form of victimization, and the drugs have a profound impact on the victims. It's also especially dangerous because people concoct their own brews of GHB so the purity and concentration of different doses can be significantly different, whereas Rohypnol is a pill that's manufactured by a drug company," she says. "It's illegal in the U.S., but if you get a 5 mg pill it has the same potency as another."

A bill signed into law by President Clinton on Feb. 18 reclassified GHB as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. "Schedule I" is reserved for the most dangerous drugs with no medical use, and so possession of GHB can now be punished by up to 20 years in prison.

However, GHB, which reportedly has street names like "scoop," "Georgia Home Boy" and "Grievous Bodily Harm," can be manufactured with a little knowledge of basic chemistry and a few common, legal household supplies. A cursory search of the Web can net you a number of free recipes. And you can even buy GHB "kits," which are sometimes as simple as two separate bottles of ingredients which one mixes, adding water.

"It's made up of very caustic substances," says Abarbanel. "Like lye or wood thinner, substances that can cause internal damage. How much of it will kill you? It depends. I wouldn't feel comfortable giving out a dosage."

GHB can also cause nausea, vomiting, impaired motor skills, respiratory depression and cause a person to pass out, as if drunk. If vomiting occurs during sleep, one can choke and die that way. Abarbanel points out that GHB is particularly dangerous when taken with alcohol and that because of its salty taste, GHB is often given to people in a sweet drink to mask the taste, or in a liqueur such as Goldschlager.

Where does GHB come from? In testimony given before a House subcommittee in March 1999, Dr. Stephen Zukin of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said that GHB appears to be a "naturally occurring compound found in the brain" and may be a neurotransmitter. Mainly GHB is a sedative, a central nervous system depressant, but in lower doses it can relieve anxiety and stress. It's also been proven to increase dopamine levels in the brain, hence its street rep as a great high.

During the 1980s bodybuilders used GHB to help them increase muscle because GHB was known to stimulate the release of the human growth hormone. The drug was available in health food stores and regarded as benign. In 1990, the FDA issued an advisory declaring GHB unsafe and illicit except under strict guidelines monitored by a doctor. According to Zukin, GHB has not been sold over the counter since 1992.

In Europe, GHB is legally used to treat alcoholism, drug addiction and (oddly enough) narcolepsy. It's also known as a general anesthetic and as a cervical dilation aid in childbirth. Several pro-GHB Web sites claim that the FDA and others jumped the gun by criminalizing a substance that has a number of positive uses. But, apparently, the FDA retains the right to approve GHB for some research and testing.

GHB has been closely linked with the rave scene, along with other "club drugs" like ecstasy and ketamine. But those I spoke to in the rave world suggest that GHB is already regarded as a drug to be avoided.

"We always have literature out at our table on different drugs," says Brooke Owyang, the San Francisco Bay Area director of DanceSafe, a nonprofit group that promotes "harm reduction" at raves and nightclubs. "There are certain drugs people hardly ever take information on, and they give a little grimace when they look at them -- speed, ketamine and GHB are those three."

The rave community may be ahead of the curve on GHB. For those who deal with rape awareness on a daily basis, GHB poses a unique challenge.

"This wasn't some creepy guy living behind a bush someplace," says Grace Huerta, community education coordinator for the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, referring to Luster's alleged crimes. "This is a good looking, wealthy, educated man. As women, we're taught at a very early age to pay attention to who we're with, not to go out alone, not to talk to the guys who give you the creeps. That's fine advice, but apparently he didn't have any of those flags that we've been told to watch for."

Just telling women to watch their drinks is not good enough any more, according to Huerta.

"If it's not going to be me, it's going to be someone else. Hopefully, in this situation, the prevention issue will be more of a community issue. Historically, it's been a small number of people saying, 'OK, what do we do to stop this?' Now we have to involve the whole community."

Huerta cites the activism of a number of bar owners as a step in the right direction. If bartenders, waitresses and patrons are all on the lookout for suspicious behavior and women who can't make it to their cars alone because their senses are impaired, it could make a crucial difference.

Other tips: Don't share drinks or drink from a punchbowl. Watch your drink from the moment it's poured; designate a non-drinking friend to make sure you don't get wasted and leave with someone under suspicious circumstances. And if someone passes out or appears sick from drinking too much, call 911 to be on the safe side.

Both Huerta and Abarbanel say that the new challenge will be getting the message out to men that this sort of activity is unacceptable.

"Statistically, we know that one out of three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes," says Huerta. "You've got a mother, a sister and an aunt? You're dating three women? There you go. People think that this doesn't apply to them, doesn't affect them. But if it happens to someone you care about, yes sir, it's your issue."

Abarbanel is even more blunt.

"This is a cruel, evil thing to do to another person," she says. "It's potentially lethal, and it's a felony crime. Those are the reasons not to do it. Then, of course, you wonder what the attraction is to have sex with an unconscious body."

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

MORE FROM Stephen Lemons

Related Topics ------------------------------------------