What is GHB, the party drug that might have killed 'Storm Chasers' star Joel Taylor?

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
Yahoo Lifestyle

When Joel Taylor, star of the former Discovery Series show Storm Chasers, died this week at the age of 38, he was allegedly chasing not a tornado, but a high.

“I wish I could have just one more chase,” his friend and former Storm Chasers co-star Reed Timmer wrote on Facebook. “He was such a great friend to so many he will leave behind such a huge void… His legacy will certainly chase on forever.”

Taylor was reportedly on a Caribbean cruise with gay-party cruise company Atlantis at the time of his death, the cause of which has not yet been determined. But he had reportedly consumed party drugs, including GHB, a downer sometimes referred to as the “date rape drug,” according to TMZ, which noted, “Law enforcement sources tell TMZ, ‘It appears the death could be an overdose and Joel Taylor was consuming controlled substances.’ A passenger who interacted with Joel tells TMZ that Joel had consumed enough GHB on the dance floor Tuesday that he was rendered unconscious and taken off the dance floor by 2 people and back to his room.”

An Atlantis spokesperson referred Yahoo Lifestyle to Royal Caribbean, which operates the cruise ship, but noted, “We were saddened to learn of the death of Mr. Taylor this week as he was a loyal guest and member of our community. His loss will be felt by many who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

In a statement to People, Royal Caribbean Cruises manager of global corporate communications said, “As is our standard procedure, law enforcement was notified and responded to the ship when it arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, January 23. We extend our most sincere and heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the 38-year-old male guest from the United States who died while onboard Harmony of the Seas. A member of our Care Team is providing support and assistance to his family.”

While an official cause of death has not been determined and an autopsy has yet to be performed, just the possibility of GHB playing a role was troubling for many familiar with both the drug and Atlantis cruises, according to a growing number of tweets.

GHB — which stands for gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid and is commonly just called “G” — began as a sleep aid, was sold over the counter for a brief time as a workout enhancer, and is now a Schedule 1 narcotic sometimes used to treat narcolepsy.

It rose to prominence on the gay dance-party circuit in the mid-1990s, and began raising red flags after young men began slipping into comas and dying at prominent fundraising parties, particularly at New York gay party mecca the Fire Island Pines. The drug remained popular in many party circles, though — giving the user a euphoric feeling that’s similar to that of alcohol, but with no hangover — and now it appears to be having a resurgence, according to Joseph Palamar, an epidemiologist and associate professor at NYU Langone Health’s Department of Population Health.

“GHB was very popular in both the hetero and gay nightclubs scenes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It acquired quite a stigma resulting from overdose and death and largely lost popularity, but GHB is supposedly making a bit of a comeback in the gay club scene,” Palamar, who has written about and studied the drug extensively, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Last nights classics party w/ @djabelaguilera during @atlantisevents #harmonyoftheseas was LIFE!!!! #thankyou #djabel #atlantisevents #atlantiscruise #royalcaribbeaninternational #thewayweplay #rci

A post shared by Marques Daniels (@sfgaynightlife) on Jan 25, 2018 at 5:12am PST

 

Taken in the form of a clear liquid that’s mixed, a drop at a time, into bottles of water, the recreational dosing of GHB is hard to control.

As Palamar explains, “It typically only takes a few drops of GHB to get someone high. It’s very potent, so it’s very easy to take too much — and when you take too much, you can pass out, and very quickly. Someone can be dancing and talking to you and 10 seconds later they are on the ground unconscious.”

Even experienced users, he says, can have trouble accurately measuring their doses “and expect to pass out unintentionally from time to time.” Palamar adds, “Some users take a second dose too soon after the first dose and think that like alcohol, the second dose will just make them a little more tipsy, but that second dose hits users much harder than the first dose. GHB ‘on the street’ is unregulated, so users rarely know the true potency (or what is actually in the drug).”

Many times, a GHB user who passes out or “falls out” will wake up after minutes or hours, feeling refreshed.

“This is the case more often than not when someone falls unconscious. GHB is supposed to make you sleep, and that’s exactly what it does,” Palamar says. But falling into this short coma can be especially dangerous in an uncontrolled environment, he says, noting, “If someone passes out, they can injure themselves and fall asleep in a position that cuts off their airway. Or someone can take way too much and seriously compromise their breathing. This is most likely when GHB is combined with alcohol.”

The whole process has become even more complicated in recent years, as chemical analogs of GHB — including one called GBL — have come into use, explains “Jim” (who asked that his real name not be used), a paramedic with 20 years of experience treating and monitoring drug-using partiers as a volunteer with a gay medical group dedicated to harm reduction on the dance floor.

“GBL breaks into two atoms of GHB, so you’re taking something twice as strong, and it also takes longer to kick in, so you might take more too soon,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Because they’re both clear liquids, though, you can never be certain which one you’re taking. “And everything becomes more complicated when you’re mixing other things in, which is especially going to be the situation at a party,” he said.

In any event, Jim adds, people don’t really die from GHB directly, but rather because it has put you in such a deep sleep state that you do not wake up, even if you vomit or choke, which can lead to death by aspiration. “When we monitor them at an event,” he explains, “we are mainly looking to see if their vitals are stable and that their airway is okay.”

Palamar addresses the question that many people might have about Taylor’s alleged situation and others that are similar: “A ‘normal’ person would think, why not call the hospital? But assuming this guy’s friends knew [what had happened], they likely thought he’d sleep it off. People don’t usually call for help — one, because they don’t want to get in trouble, but two, because they usually wake up.”

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