GHB is a “club drug” used recreationally at nightclubs, raves or other dance parties. It has also gained notoriety as a drug used to facilitate sexual assault as it induces memory loss, which makes it difficult for the victim to recall details of the assault.
Unfortunately, detecting the “bottle-cap drink” (the Estonian street name for GHB, as it is often measured and sold at parties by the capful) is a tough nut to crack, since the fluid is completely colorless and odorless, and its slightly salty taste may easily remain unnoticed when mixed with other drinks.
Moreover, GHB metabolizes in the body quickly and therefore evades blood testing.
The effects of GHB
GHB or gamma hydroxybutyric acid is illegal, but its components can be easily obtained and preparing the drug is relatively simple.
When ingested in small amounts it generates a sense of relaxation similar to the effect of alcohol. A more substantial dose may cause dizziness, loss of balance, memory loss or slight paralysis. An overdose may result in coma or even death. Depending on the person, the drug takes effect 10–15 minutes or up to an hour after ingestion and lasts 3–6 hours.
The standard test used for detecting traces of GHB in drinks is the so-called Smith’s test. It has been around for a long time, but publicly available information regarding its chemistry and scope of application (i.e., in which drinks GHB can be detected) is surprisingly scarce.
With the safety of club-goers in mind, UT master’s student in chemistry Gea Ovsjannikov performed this test under close scrutiny. To establish the criteria of applicability and to validate the test, she mixed GHB with 56 alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Ovsjannikov defended her master’s thesis, which was based on the results of her work, in June of this year.
Not always reliable
“In essence, it is like a pH test – only it does not react to the level of pH but rather to the process of pH change that takes place in the solution when GHB and the regent used in the Smith’s test react with each other,“ explains Ovsjannikov. If the regent colors the drink greenish, it contains GHB. The shades of green may vary from grassy green to aquamarine. However, there are limits to the applicability of the test.
Firstly, and rather unsurprisingly, the test doesn’t work with green-colored cocktails, such as Pisang with orange juice. Here the color change is so subtle that no one could possibly perceive it. Dark-colored drinks are problematic as well. Coca-Cola and red wine change color when mixed with GHB but it really takes keen eyes to tell the difference.
The test is also of no use with drinks that contain milk (“Maybe it’s not such a good idea to order Irish cream in a nightclub,” warns Ovsjannikov) or drinks that are very acidic. Ovsjannikov experimented with freshly pressed lemon juice but no changes in color occurred. However, the test worked with lemon drinks bought from a supermarket.
She also encountered some difficulties with water. “Be it ordinary tap water or mineral water, the test showed the presence of GHB even if the water was perfectly clean. This abnormality is caused by the hydrogen carbonate ions found in water, which have a high buffering ability.
However, a simple trick solves this problem – the water has to be made a bit more acidic,” said Ovsjannikov. So, should the GHB tests one day become widely available, it would make sense to ask the barman always to add a small slice of lemon to your water (just to be on the safe side).
Gea’s GHB tests lie in the field of analytical chemistry. If you are interested, check out our Erasmus Mundus joint master programme Excellence in Analytical Chemistry.