Perfectly legal, yet potentially deadly, this year’s festivals will be flooded
with a new wave of lethal party drugs. Fabulous investigates
When she fell out with her best friend, Liz Bradley was confident it wouldn’t
be long before she and Hester Stewart made up again.
Nicknamed Team Blonde, the two young medical students often bickered, but they
never stayed angry at each other for long.
This time, though, they didn’t get the chance to say sorry. Two weeks after
their tiff, Hester was dead from a drugs overdose. She hadn’t bought her fix
from a seedy backstreet dealer – the drug that killed her is perfectly legal
and freely available to buy on the high street or over the internet for as
little as 50p a shot.
Hester was 21 and the latest young woman to become a victim of ‘legal highs’ –
drugs that are as easy to buy as cigarettes, but as deadly as heroin or
Liz, 21, who met Hester at Sussex University, says: “I miss Hester every day.
I can’t even put into words how much. It’s like half of me is gone.
“She was the most amazing and loving friend you could ever wish for – wise,
beautiful and intelligent with the world at her feet. Even though she was
spontaneous and could get overexcited about things, she wasn’t an idiot –
particularly when it came to something like drugs. If she’d thought for an
instant this drug was dangerous, I know she’d never have touched it and
would still be here today.”
The substance that killed Hester is the ‘party drug’ GBL, also known as ‘coma
in a bottle’. Its official name is gamma-butyrolactone and it’s used as an
industrial paint stripper and rust remover.
But a rising number of young people have found another use for it.
A shot of the colourless, odourless liquid mixed with orange juice or water
and then swallowed produces an effect similar to taking Ecstasy. The user
feels relaxed, chatty and flirtatious and, because it’s legal, they wrongly
assume it’s perfectly safe.
Most are unaware of the dangers, but GBL is easier to overdose on than heroin.
Getting the concentration even slightly wrong can result in nausea,
blackouts, coma and even death – especially when mixed with alcohol.
“It’s incredibly dangerous,” says Dr Sean Cummings, who runs a private GP
practice in Harley Street. “I’m seeing more and more people in my drugs
counselling clinic who take it – and some of them are addicted.
“It’s very easy to overdose on GBL – mixing it with alcohol can also be fatal.
It sends you into a coma where your breathing slows and the cough reflex is
suppressed. If you’re sick, you can inhale your own vomit and drown. It
really is a horrible way to die.”
Alarmingly, he estimates that over the past few years, at least 20 people in
the UK have died after taking GBL. And it’s normally young partygoers
looking for new highs without straying outside the law.
Young women like Sarah O’Dowd. She was just 24 when Liam, her husband of five
months, found her dead in the bath at their home in Leeds in October 2007.
It’s thought Sarah, who ran a website selling GBL, had fallen asleep after
taking it and drowned.
Yet while the drug was banned in America, Canada and Sweden five years ago,
and countries such as France and Germany run poster campaigns in clubs to
raise awareness of its dangers, it’s still available to buy in Britain.
Last October, recommendations from Government advisors that it should be
banned in the UK went unheeded.
It’s only now, following a campaign by Hester’s heartbroken mother Maryon, a
leading nutritionist from Lewes, East Sussex, that the Government is looking
to bring in a ban this summer.
But it’s too late for Hester – she was found dead at the home of a former
boyfriend in April.
The student, who was in her second year of studying molecular medicine, had
been attending an awards ceremony with her university cheerleading squad.
The next morning her body was found – a vial of GBL lying nearby. A
post-mortem confirmed she’d taken the drug and an inquest into her death
will resume next month.
But while the campaign by Hester’s family and friends could finally see GBL
banned, there are lots of other ‘legal highs’ on the market.
John Ramsey, a toxicologist and director of Tictac Communications at London’s
St George’s Medical School, is one of the leading experts in the field.
He says nitrous oxide – or laughing gas – has become incredibly popular with
clubbers and festival-goers.
Normally used as a propellant in whipped cream canisters, inhaling the nitrous
oxide capsules can bring on two minutes of giggling, euphoria and even
“We attend festivals each year to keep tabs on what people are taking,” he
says. “Last year the fields at Glastonbury were littered with nitrous oxide
“While the substance itself is not that dangerous, it’s the stupid things
people do while under the influence that’s of concern. For example, there
was a case of someone putting a condom over their head and suffocating.”
Statistics show that four people died as a direct result of using laughing gas
in 2007 and figures for 2008 are predicted to be higher.
John Ramsey and his team are also concerned about so-called ‘herbal highs’,
sold at festivals, in specialist herbal shops and in online stores known as
“These sachets used to contain harmless herbs laced with a strong dose of
caffeine, but now they’re full of chemical concoctions that mimic the effect
of street drugs,” he says.
“They’re actually more closely associated with cannabis, Ecstasy, and cocaine,
but they are legal and this, along with the ‘herbal’ branding, mislead
people into thinking they’re safe.”
In fact, experts believe that side effects could include schizophrenia, kidney
and heart failure. And it’s not just young people who are at risk.
Believing she was trying something harmless, Anna Casswell, 35, from
Leicester, took herbal E at a festival last year.
“I wouldn’t have taken illegal drugs, but I saw no harm in a legal high,”
recalls Anna, a mum of two. “I tried it, but soon afterwards I felt
incredibly nauseous and then was very sick. I didn’t get any kind of high
and had no idea it was dangerous. It was dreadful.”
Analysis has shown Ecstasy substitutes like herbal E can contain ephedrine and
benzylpiperazine (BZP), which are both amphetamine-like stimulants.
“I’ve since read up about it online and was horrified to discover that
something I thought was safe could have given me respiratory failure or a
seizure,” says Anna. “It’s outrageous that something so dangerous can be
sold so freely.”
This month it was announced that the Government is drawing up a list of
chemicals, including GBL, which it hopes to ban in the next few weeks under
a fast-track scheme.
But for Liz, it is too little, too late.
“I’m heartbroken that Hester has become a poster girl for what these legal
highs can do,” she says.
“It hurts so much to think that this perfect girl had to die before the
Government changes things and before people learn the risks of these ‘party
If you’d like to donate to the Hester Stewart Memorial Foundation, send
cheques to PO Box 117, Rottingdean, BN51 9BG.
‘I WENT INTO A COMA AFTER OVERDOSING ON PARTY DRUGS’
28, an IT worker from Leeds, thought legal highs were safe – until she got
“When I first began clubbing in 2002, I’d take Ecstasy every so often. But I
always felt it was very risky. People have died from taking it, and it can
get you into trouble with the police. So when a friend offered me GBL, and
told me it was legal, it seemed a much safer alternative.
The first time I had it was in a club in Leeds a few years ago. It gave me a
warm, fuzzy feeling and, unlike with alcohol, I felt in control and had no
hangover the next day.
From then on, I didn’t touch illegal drugs – I just bought GBL over the
internet. At first, I’d take a couple of doses on a night out, but gradually
found I needed more to feel the same high. Sometimes I’d drink alcohol as
well, but not much.
It’s easy to take too much GBL and go into a sort of coma. In clubs, you’d see
people who’d overdosed and couldn’t be woken up. I’d read about a woman
who’d died after taking it too, but told myself I’d be OK.
All too soon, I couldn’t do without it. I was getting through 50 shots a time
at a cost of around £25, and taking it almost daily. I was even going to my
job at an IT call centre high on GBL. I was in such a haze I didn’t think
anyone noticed, but they must have realised.
The lowest point came last July. I’d overdosed on GBL and passed out at a
friend’s flat – and woke up to find a man having sex with me. It was
terrifying. I was almost in a coma, awake, but unable to move. I couldn’t
scream or fight him off. Once he realised my eyes were open, he stopped and
ran out of the flat. I had no idea who he was and I felt too ashamed to tell
That was rock bottom for me. I decided to stop taking GBL there and then. My
cravings were severe. I felt depressed and irritable for months, but I
haven’t touched it since.
I’m seeing a drugs counsellor and making plans to start my own IT business.
I’m determined to get my life back on track.”
THE LOW-DOWN ON ‘LEGAL HIGHS’
GBL: Nicknamed ‘coma in a
bottle’, its legitimate use is as an industrial paint stripper or rust
remover. But GBL is closely related to GHB, the date-rape drug banned in
2003. An overdose can cause vomiting, coma and even death.
HERBAL E: Contains BZP, an amphetamine-like stimulant, which was originally
used as a worming tablet for cows. It can cause respiratory failure and
seizures. There are Government plans to ban it.
SPICE: Marketed as a smoking blend of herbs, but tests have shown it contains
a synthetic derivative of cannabis, which mirrors the effects of the drug
but packs a much bigger punch. Experts fear it could cause psychotic
episodes, heart attacks and schizophrenia.
NITROUS OXIDE: Also known as ‘laughing gas’. Used as a propellant for whipped
cream. Clubbers inhale it for a two-minute ‘high’.
WOOD, ALAMY HAIR & MAKE-UP: HELEN ARCHER AT NEMESIS STYLING: LUCIE
CLIFFORD ZOE WEARS: DRESS, LIMITED EDITION; BANGLE, DIVA AT MISS SELFRIDGE