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4 drink liquid, land in hospital

Each man swallowed a capful of what may have been the drug GHB. They vomited, then passed out.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2001


SPRING HILL -- Four men were rushed to the hospital and one of them nearly died Wednesday night after they took a clear liquid substance they thought was the increasingly popular drug known as GHB.

Authorities are now investigating where the man who provided the substance -- a former Ohio law enforcement officer -- obtained it. And they are using the near-fatal incident to warn people, especially teens who make up a large percentage of those using the chemical, that it is dangerous.

"Fortunately, we don't have any dead bodies," said Hernando County sheriff's spokeswoman Deanna Dammer. "(GHB) is just starting to appear in this county, but why wait until we have a death? This is not like taking a little drink. You just don't know what it can do."

Officials stress that they are not sure the substance the four men took Wednesday while at a friend's house on Finland Avenue was GHB -- formally known as gamma hydroxybutyrate. Although a woman died in Tampa after taking the drug on New Year's Eve, overdose deaths are relatively rare. Emergency room visits are growing, however.

Samples of the substance have been sent to a lab for testing. Once sold in health food stores, GHB is now illegal and known as both a date rape and a club drug that induces a stupor effect. It and its chemical cousins are widely available on the Internet as ink jet cleaners and nutritional supplements.

The Spring Hill man who handed out the substance Wednesday night, whose name and address officials have not released, said he regularly uses GHB and believed that is what he gave his friends, a sheriff's report said. Officials said the man is a former Ohio law enforcement officer who now works in real estate and is self-employed. When authorities questioned him, he repeatedly called GHB a "renutrient." He has not been charged in the incident.

Authorities arrived at the house late Wednesday after Jason L. Donnell, 24, of Tampa called 911. Donnell, who appeared sober, told a deputy that the four other men had taken one capful of GHB each, a sheriff's report said. Immediately afterward, each man began vomiting and -- one by one -- passed out.

The men, Manuel Alvarez, 38, of Tampa; his roommate Robbie K. Fessia, 27; Anthony Novembre, 30, of Tampa; and the Spring Hill man, were taken to different local hospitals. Worst off was Novembre. Spring Hill Regional doctors predicted that he would survive the night but said he had serious lung problems caused by the amount of vomiting. An extreme case of pneumonia could threaten his life in the lung run, a report said.

By Thursday, Fessia and the Spring Hill man had been released from the hospital. At midday, Alvarez was in stable condition at Oak Hill Hospital, and Novembre was in critical but stable condition, Dammer said. Hospital officials would not release updated conditions Thursday evening.

If tests confirm the drug was GHB, the men will be among the growing number of people who have been injured by or who have overdosed on GHB and GHB-related drugs. So far, 5,700 people have reported such incidents, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. At least 76 have died.

Over the past several years, seven people have died from GHB-related complications in the Tampa Bay area.

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