Just a teaspoonful of a drug called GHB can have the same effect as more than a dozen beers - and knock the user unconscious without warning. Now imagine someone high on GHB behind the wheel of a car.
By RYAN DAVIS and BRADY DENNIS
Since middle school, Shanna West had tried just about everything: She drank beer and smoked marijuana, she popped pills and snorted cocaine.
Shortly before she turned 21, friends introduced her to a new high: GHB.
It was cheap, easy to get and it calmed her racing mind. It had one other thing going for it -- the cops couldn't tell she was on it.
The drug got her into trouble when she drove because, just like that, she would fall unconscious. She once passed out driving the Crosstown Expressway; her Chevy Cavalier bounced twice off the guardrail and barrelled 30 feet the wrong direction down the highway. The police drawing of her accident looked like a big curlicue.
But the cop didn't smell alcohol and didn't know to test for GHB. He concluded that West lost control for "unknown reasons," ticketed her for careless driving and sent her on her way.
Two weeks later, it happened again. She passed out at a red light on Dale Mabry Highway. When an officer opened her car door, she didn't even budge. But when paramedics arrived, it was like somebody snapped his fingers: She leaped from her seat and started talking.
She blew a 0.00 on a Breathalyzer test and could have gotten away with it again, but this time she told the officers she had been drinking from the bottle on her front seat. It had GHB in it.
Charged with driving under the influence, she bonded out of jail a few minutes before sunrise, her driver's license in good standing.
At her boyfriend's place late that afternoon, West dropped two shots of GHB into a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea, downed it and slid back behind the wheel.
She headed north on U.S. 41 into Pasco County.
* * *
GHB, short for gamma-hydroxybutyrate, means different things to different users.
Weight lifters say it helps build muscle. All-night partyers use it at nightclubs and raves. Business travelers use it as a sleep aid. College students call it "zero-calorie booze."
But when it comes to GHB drivers, there are only two types: bad and worse. Without warning, it knocks drivers unconscious.
"It's a cheap, wild high," said retired Los Angeles Police Lt. Trinka Porrata, the nation's leading GHB expert. "It turns two beers into 15 with a couple drops."
The number of GHB emergency room visits nationwide soared from 55 in 1994 to nearly 5,000 in 2000.
Because GHB is a social drug, users tend not to stay at home. Bizarre and tragic episodes follow.
A 33-year-old was pulled over after driving on three flat tires. Another 33-year-old varied speeds from 40 to 80 mph, oblivious that police were chasing him for 6 miles.
Another man ran six stop signs while driving 45 in a 25 mph zone. Police tested him for alcohol, found almost none and cited him for reckless driving. Ten days later he slammed into a stopped car, killing the driver.
Like all the others, he was high on GHB.
It's a nightmare to catch and convict GHB drivers. Even when GHB knocks a driver unconscious at the wheel, he typically snaps back to alertness. He blows 0.00 on a Breathalyzer test.
"(The erratic driving) is going to look to police most often like alcohol, and when they get a negative alcohol reading they really don't have the means or the methods to go further," said Jo Ellen Dyer, a California toxicologist. "They get away with it."
Like Shanna West did.
She had been out of jail less than 12 hours. As day wore toward dusk, West drove U.S. 41 toward her friend's house in Land O'Lakes, where she had grown up and attended school.
She stopped at a convenience store and tore out of the parking lot minutes later, wheels screeching, headed north. In the front seat she carried the Arizona Iced Tea bottle with its extra ingredient.
She started to fall in and out of consciousness at State Road 54 and U.S. 41; she remembers little of the next 8 miles. "I was swerving all around the road, but I didn't have control enough to pull over," she recalled later.
What West has trouble remembering, Ron Nichols of Spring Hill cannot forget.
"She passed me on the right side, over in the grass," Nichols said. "I was blinking my lights, honking my horn, just trying to get her attention. I've never seen anyone drive like that in my life. It looked like she had a death wish."
In a Chevy Corsica heading in the other direction, Maria Florez and her two daughters were going to a School Board meeting in Land O'Lakes, where 14-year-old Virginia was to receive a college scholarship. In the front seat was 54-year-old Barbara Mercer, who had grown close to the family helping Habitat for Humanity build them a house in Dade City.
Florez saw West's headlights up ahead weaving across the two-lane highway. Florez tried to swerve out of the way, but it was too late.
West crossed the center line a final time. Barbara Mercer was dead.
* * *
GHB is only a Web page away. Recipes, ingredients and the drug itself are readily available on the Internet.
"If you read the Internet, you'd think GHB improves your sex life, improves your sleep and gives you energy," said Dr. Karen Miotto, who does GHB research at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Those myths aside, GHB is an industrial solvent, a batch of chemicals cooked up over a kitchen sink. One dose can be 20 times stronger than the next.
It is typically sold as a liquid, for as little as $10 a capful. A high can last four hours. It is wildly addictive.
Like alcohol, it is a central nervous system depressant. Unlike alcohol, a couple of tablespoons can knock someone unconscious in 20 minutes. Five minutes before dropping into deep sleep, users show no hint of drunkenness.
GHB fades as rapidly as it hits. Users snap back into consciousness, feeling refreshed. They often don't remember how they got where they are.
"We have no idea of the numbers," said Deborah Zvosec, a medical anthropologist who wrote an article about the drug for the New England Journal of Medicine. "I definitely don't think it's a fad. I would tend toward epidemic."
Until 1990, most health food stores sold GHB.
About the same time as it was banned in stores, the national poison center issued an alert, sparked by three incidents in Florida. Two of those involved men who collapsed in Ybor City.
Florida made the drug illegal in March 1997; it was banned nationwide in 2000 after it gained notoriety as a date-rape drug. A man would slip the odorless, colorless drug into a woman's drink and knock her unconscious. It has the same knockout effect on drivers.
Florida is home to the entire array of likely GHB users: athletes, body builders, partying college kids and all-night dance clubbers.
Said Trinka Porrata: "Florida is the absolute capital of GHB death and destruction."
For the past decade, Florida has been training law enforcement officers to recognize when a driver is on something other than alcohol.
Known as Drug Recognition Experts, these officers undergo up to a year of intensive training. The problem is training enough of them.
Of more than 42,000 sworn law enforcement officers in Florida, only about 90 are DRE officers. About 10 work in the Tampa Bay area.
The only GHB training most other officers get is a pamphlet to read.
"There are a lot of subtleties that are impossible for a normal officer to pick up on," said retired Miami DRE officer Charles Smith, an expert witness in drugs and driving trials.
"With GHB, the person's speech might not be slurred, the eyes might not be bloodshot. It's just hard for a normal officer."
* * *
Inside West's mangled car, investigators found a check made out to a Tampa drug rehab center. She told a reporter she had just gotten serious about fighting her addiction.
Nov. 22, 2000, the day after the wreck, she sat in her garage, both arms in casts. She puffed on Parliament cigarettes and confessed to a reporter that she drove high on GHB. She figured her case was a slam-dunk conviction.
"I've killed somebody," she said. "I don't think it's right for people to get away with stuff."
When the Florida Highway Patrol interviewed her more than two months later, she confessed again. They also had her blood, drawn at a Tampa hospital after the accident. With her confessions, they knew to test that blood for GHB.
With all that, how could she not get convicted of killing someone while driving under the influence of GHB?
Easily, it turns out.
* * *
GHB disappears from from blood in four hours and from urine in 12 hours. A DUI conviction can disappear with it.
But immediate testing doesn't solve the problem if no one tests for GHB -- and it's rare that anyone does.
In DUI cases, agencies across the state rely on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for blood and urine testing. Though the FDLE has called GHB a "growing concern for Florida," it tests for the drug only if an investigator requests it or if the case catches the eye of a lab technician.
That rarely happens.
From Dec. 1, 2000, when the FDLE started testing for GHB in urine, until July 31, 2001, it examined evidence in 3,293 DUI cases. It tested for drugs in 1,941 of those cases. It checked for GHB just 30 times.
In other words, when it tested for drugs, the FDLE did not look for GHB 99.1 percent of the time.
It looks for most drugs -- from cocaine to Ecstasy to amphetamines to opiates -- in every drug test. Why not GHB?
It's too time consuming.
A routine drug screen can require as little as 10 minutes of hands-on time. A GHB test takes four to six hours of hands-on work.
The FDLE doesn't have the equipment to test for GHB in blood. It has to ship those samples to other labs, even out of state.
To get an idea of how many GHB cases are being missed, compare the FDLE approach with the smaller scale work of the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, which performs drug and alcohol tests for local DUI cases.
Like the FDLE, it tests for GHB at investigators' requests. But there's a big contrast. The medical examiner also tests for the drug in every test on drivers 40 and younger. Last year, it found GHB in about 8 percent of suspected drug DUI cases. That's 14 times more often than the FDLE finds the drug in similar cases.
Testing quickly and looking for GHB in every case would seem to be the answer. But it's still not that simple. A positive test hardly ensures a conviction in a DUI system geared toward alcohol.
For GHB and other drugs, the law states that prosecutors must prove that a driver's normal faculties were impaired. That's easier said than done.
"We have a whole body of law that has grown up around the breath test machine," said Pasco lawyer J. Larry Hart, a former prosecutor. "But you are not going to find (GHB) on one's breath. Thus, the proof becomes more difficult for the prosecutor to present.
"(A blood alcohol content of) 0.08 is a bright line," Hart said. "You're either across it, or you're not. (With GHB), there is a standard, but it is not as bright a line."
Lawyer William Head, who wrote 101 Ways to Avoid a Drunk Driving Conviction, brags about getting his GHB clients off: "I just won one in city court in Atlanta where there was enough GHB (in the driver) to stop an elephant. They had to slap him to wake him up."
* * *
Since October 1997, Shanna West's license has been suspended 14 times for traffic violations, insurance problems and failure to pay fines.
She also pleaded guilty to DUI in the GHB case where she fell asleep at the traffic light the night before the fatal accident.
But her record will not include a charge of DUI manslaughter.
Even though West confessed she was high on GHB when she caused the accident that killed Barbara Mercer, and even though the state has witnesses that describe her weaving on and off the road, prosecutor Phil Van Allen said he couldn't convict her on DUI charges.
"I do not have evidence to say there was enough (GHB) in her bloodstream that it affected her ability to operate a motor vehicle," he said.
Instead of charging her with manslaughter by DUI, prosecutors charged manslaughter by culpable negligence, which calls for a shorter prison sentence. Now 22, West is scheduled for trial Feb. 11 in Dade City.
While West prepares for trial, Barbara Mercer's family copes with the death of a wife and mother, whose laugh was so distinctive friends could tell it was her from aisles away at Wal-Mart.
Lindy Mercer quit his job in Alaska with British Petroleum and took real estate classes. He took over his wife's job at Kelly Realty in Dade City so he could be with his sons full time.
"I never knew that the bathroom floor gets dirty," Lindy Mercer said. "I thought it was just always clean. I've been learning a lot of things like that."
He also has been learning about GHB, the drug that helped kill his wife. The children, Tony, 18, and Ricky, 11, are coming to terms with it as well.
One morning at First Baptist Church in Dade City, a Sunday school teacher asked her fifth-graders if there was anyone, anything they would like to pray for that week.
Ricky Mercer raised his hand.
"I want to pray for the lady who killed my mom, that she'll go to heaven."
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