Of smokes and tokes

After finding cigarettes contain an illegal drug, Joe McGhee battles bureaucrats, regulations, corporations and, finally, the truth

Joe McGhee gathers documents on his quest for the truth about what’s <i>really</i> in cigarettes.

Joe McGhee gathers documents on his quest for the truth about what’s really in cigarettes.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Joe McGhee sits at a small circular table outside Java City in the Roseville Galleria Mall. He looks no more than 21, all stylishly cut hair and large blue-green eyes. At present, those eyes alight with a Don Quixote-like vision, but the windmills at which he tilts involve perceived hypocrisies in the war on drugs.

Government officials, said McGhee, are not playing by the rules they made up. He is positive of this because he found the illegal drug GBL in cigarettes, and what appears to be a contradiction in the law. To McGhee, the cigarette companies are getting away with something that would land your average citizen in jail.

As a volunteer for DanceSafe, an organization devoted to reducing the harm of narcotics use, McGhee has interests that lie in proving the government wrong. He knows the drug war is a sham and just wants to prove it. As far as McGhee is concerned, the studies claiming brain damage and addiction caused by some drugs like Ecstasy and GBL are produced with a government agenda involving a bottom line: money.

“If they’re going to enforce these laws they need to do it equilaterally,” said McGhee, “and not single out the drugs that the government’s not profiting from.”

His personal research led him to believe that Ecstasy and other drugs often grouped under the heading “club drugs” are not as dangerous as the government would like the public to believe. To step out a little further onto that precarious ledge usually reserved for radicals and junkies, McGhee even believes that when used responsibly, drugs like GBL can have great medicinal benefit.

Yet it was when McGhee began researching the chemical ingredients in cigarettes that he made his big discovery, his smoking gun, his bombshell that led him to contact SN&R and actually get a call back.

McGhee found that many cigarettes contain something called 4-hydroxybutanoic acid lactone, according to published ingredients lists from two of the biggest tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds and Brown and Williamson. And from his previous research on club drugs, McGhee knew the chemical is actually just a different name for GBL, a substance found on both the California and federal controlled substances “Schedule One” lists.

Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act is reserved for illegal drugs with no known medicinal value. It’s a virtual all-star list of some of the best-known illegal substances in the United States, including opium, marijuana, peyote and cocaine.

For McGhee the discovery began an odyssey of red tape, government agencies that refused to claim responsibility and unreturned messages for tobacco companies. All for the answer to a simple question: Why are major cigarette corporations allowed to use a substance that would land an average citizen in jail for possession? What was going on here?

One of the newest additions to the list of bad-ass illegals is GHB, commonly known as the “date rape drug” because a large enough dose can cause blackouts and amnesia. It disappears from the body quickly, making the traditional pee-test almost useless for detection.

The government added gamma-butyrolactone, or GBL, to the controlled substances list as a precursor to GHB: add some chemicals to it and presto chango, you have a drug featured on the controlled substances list. Or you can just let your own body do the work, because GBL gets broken down into GHB in the bloodstream all on its own.

At the UCD Poison Control Center, Judith Alsop said diversion from its intended use as an industrial solvent is often how GBL hits the streets. The DEA’s Office of Diversion Control handles illegal substances with perfectly legal uses as long as those uses don’t involve human consumption. It keeps a diligent government eye on whom GBL parties with. Knowing that conversion to GHB is as simple as swallowing an amount of the liquid, it’s arguably easier to produce than such nasties as crack or methamphetamine.

When consumed in what Alsop refers to as therapeutic doses, GBL and GHB act as a muscle relaxant and anxiety reducer. At high doses, ingestion causes vomiting, confusion, and the blackouts that have caused it to be labeled the date rape drug, because many rapists find it useful in procuring a victim. The term “dose” is used loosely, however. In liquid form, said Alsop, a dose of GBL is often described as a “capful.”

But what about the danger posed from the amount of GBL included in a cigarette? Alsop says it’s minimal. She recognizes the potential for abuse in large quantities of GBL, but thinks, “If a person is smoking, they’re probably gonna have problems other than those caused by GBL.”

It’s not about taking away

choices. It’s not even about stopping people from smoking. For McGhee, it’s about being fair. And if the average person can’t walk down the street with a tube of GBL for personal use, why the heck are cigarette companies allowed to sell it?

Determined to bang on the door of every government agency until he got an answer, McGhee started with the one that handles all illegal drugs, the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. But cigarettes do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau, so he was back to square one.

Next on McGhee’s list of government agencies that should care: the Department of Justice. Again, no luck. Trying to get someone to speak with him at the tobacco companies was like trying to land a quarter in the little red circle on the State Fair midway. McGhee feared apathy on the part of the government or something more sinister—conspiracy between the money-lined pockets of legislators and the supplying tobacco companies.

Unfortunately, McGhee just wasn’t knocking on the right doors. Or maybe he didn’t ask the right questions. As far as cigarette companies are concerned, their ingredients lists are protected as “trade secrets,” and if they’re feeling magnanimous, some will put two-year-old ingredients lists on their Web sites.

Finally with RJ Reynolds sidestepping their claim that the 2000 ingredients list displayed on the company Web site was current, McGhee thought he was close to bringing down the windmill. After all, when later questioned, Seth Moskowitz, a representative for RJ Reynolds, changed his earlier answer by wriggling into a statement that 4-hydroxybutanoic acid lactone was no longer on their ingredients list and hadn’t been since prior to 2001. He went on to emphasize that when it was an ingredient it was used in a minimal amount as a flavoring additive in only one part per million or less.

For all McGhee’s digging, it was SN&R’s fact-checking that finally took the wind out of his sails. It turns out that cigarette additives are grouped with food additives on the Generally Recognized as Safe list. All additives to products intended for human consumption must get the FDA stamp of approval and are placed on this list.

And right there, in black and white, was 4-hydroxybutanoic acid lactone. Even though slugging down capfuls to get high is illegal, FDA spokeswoman Laura Bradbard said the approval as a food product has to do with the “amount and purpose of the use.”

She claims GBL exists naturally in some foods and in our bodies, “just not in quantities that are seen in illegal use.”

The fact is, as long as it’s used in small amounts, GBL is OK by the FDA for use as a flavoring additive in things like crackers, sodas and in cigarettes. Nathan Barakin, a spokesman for Attorney General Lockyer, agrees that both the content and context makes the difference, but adds a flair of bureaucratic mysticism by saying that this was a “very complicated area.”

Is it OK for people to walk down the street with a container of GBL in their pockets that they plan to add to dinner? According to both Bradbard and Barakin, the answer is no. But if you plan to smoke that cigarette after dinner, don’t look for the feds to step in for the bust.

The fact that GBL is on the Generally Recognized as Safe list as a food additive is the answer to Joe McGhee’s question. However, for McGhee, the windmill still stands, waving him on. It never ends. The answer only raises new questions. Like why isn’t it being used medicinally? He argues that with low side effects and addiction forming only at high levels of consumption, GBL is a viable alternative to many prescription drugs.

Looking at the list of acceptable food additives, he said, “according to this it is OK to possess GBL, in contradiction to the controlled substances list that says you can’t.”

He looks at the list again and again. He shakes his head, not so much angry that GBL is on it but that a drug that he thinks could have therapeutic use as a mild sedative and muscle relaxant is denied to so many people in favor of prescription drugs.

“I’m on a prescription, for insomnia,” he says quietly, still disbelieving. “If I could take this instead, I would. And according to this,” he holds up the list, with 4-hydroxybutanioc acid lactone highlighted in yellow before finishing his sentence, “it would be all right. But if I get caught on the street with it, I go to jail. It just doesn’t make sense.”

And perhaps for people like Joe McGhee, it never will.