In search of this week's high: A dangerous new recreational drug - so new that possessing it is not yet illegal - has found its way from the clubs of Los Angeles to some of the quietest streets in Britain

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THE VILLAGE of Lovedean, near Portsmouth, couldn't be less suited to its name. On the edge of a suburban conglomeration of small towns and villages a few hundred yards from the busy A3, it consists of little more than rows of low-slung Sixties bungalows and what look like hastily assembled council flats, whose inhabitants are served by a row of shabby flat- roofed shops and a red-brick, soulless pub. A few farm buildings, a thatched cottage and one large flinted house set back from the road are the last vestiges of the pretty Hampshire backwater it must once have been.

On 26 April, the village achieved minor notoriety when local police made the first seizure in Britain of gamma hydroxybutyrate, increasing speculation that the drug, also known as GHB, GBH, Liquid E or Liquid X, would become the rave drug of the Nineties.

People say raves don't happen much round here, but Lovedean villagers in search of a good time do not have far to go. On a Saturday night a few miles from the village, the small Portsmouth suburb of Waterlooville is quiet. Flanked by two busy dual carriageways, the high street leads into a pedestrianised shopping precinct lined with slightly down-at-heel chain stores.

From the back, the purpose-built Heroes pub resembles a small out-of-town superstore: dark brick and steep-roofed, with car parks at either side. Inside, music blares from the jukebox, and the queue for the bar is three deep: young men in their twenties, casually dressed in jeans and trainers; young women, their permed hair immobilised by mousse and hairspray. One or two look stoned as they arrive, arranging pints with the minimum of conversation and staring, pupils dilated, at the scene around them. The landlord stops people now and then as they come in and checks their IDs; a handful are turned away.

Outside, I approach a group of young men and ask about GHB. 'Yeah, we done that,' says one. The others nod in agreement. One of them, John, says he is a friend of the three men who were arrested in Lovedean. 'A mate of mine brought some GBH back from the States a few months ago and I tried it, yeah.' What was it like? 'Crap. But I done some whizz (amphetamine sulphate) that night and had quite a few drinks an' you're not meant to drink alcohol with it, so I reckon the alcohol killed it. I mean I felt something, a bit buzzy, I suppose, but I haven't done it again, 'cos there's no point doing drugs if you can't drink with 'em.'

They all laugh. 'Yeah,' agrees Mark, staring at me, his eyes glazed. 'But I done that stuff you was talking about, in the little plastic bottles, the stuff they was making. A mate give it me. I suppose about 15 of us tried it. I done some whizz and had a few drinks, then a few hours later I remembered about it, so I drunk some. And me and my girlfriend had a really nice couple of hours.' How nice? 'Well, sort of sexy, you know, a bit trippy. But I'd rather have an E (an Ecstasy tablet) any day.'

All the men have jobs, girlfriends; a couple have children. But getting high seems to be a priority, and they talk garrulously about drugs, jostling with each other to be heard. They promise that if I get in touch next weekend, they'll fix me up with a bottle of GHB.

GAMMA hydroxybutyrate was originally developed as an anaesthetic but, following reports of unpredictable side-effects, including hallucinations, its use was later restricted to the treatment of narcolepsy (a sleep disorder) and the relief of withdrawal symptoms in alcoholics. Then, in the late Eighties, new research showed that it acted as a growth hormone stimulant, and GHB began to be sold illegally in body-building gyms and health food shops in the United States. Later, as the Californian rave scene gathered momentum, the colourless, watery liquid began to be marketed as cheap alternative to the psychedelic amphetamine MDMA, also known as Ecstasy.

By 1991, reports that those using the drug recreationally were suffering alarming side- effects including nausea, vomiting, respiratory problems, drowsiness, amnesia, loss of muscle control and even of consciousness (hence the nickname GBH, for grievous bodily harm) led to the American Food and Drug Administration issuing an official warning, and the drug was banned (except for research purposes) shortly afterwards. But last year it hit the headlines again following speculation that GHB was part of the cocktail of drugs the actor River Phoenix had taken just before his death.

'The big problem with GHB,' Gantt Galloway, a research pharmacist for the Haight- Ashbury Drug Detox Program in San Francisco, told the Sacramento Bee last November, 'is that the dose you take to get high is fairly close to the dose it takes to put you to sleep - which is fairly close to the dose that causes seizures and coma. This is a drug with a narrow range of safe doses, so it's easy to run into trouble with.' And trouble is what Hampshire police believe they have found in Lovedean.

Despite rumours during the past year that the drug has been circulating in clubs in various parts of Britain, none of the drugs agencies I spoke to in Manchester, London, Brighton, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff and Swansea had any record of people coming to them with a problem after using GHB. They had all heard of it, though. 'We hear about fashions in drugs and later it filters through to agencies like ours,' says Frances Richards, drug adviser at the London agency Release. 'I think it's just starting to come in.' The seizure at Lovedean, probably destined for London's clubs, offers the first solid evidence that the drug is beginning to be produced and distributed in Britain.

SATURDAY. Midnight at a club in London's West End. The dance floor is packed. Teenage girls in baby-doll dresses chew gum and gyrate among spotty youths with shoulder-length hair and baggy T-shirts to the pulsating beat. In the women's loo, gaggles of girls file in to touch up make-up, to chat and to refill water bottles from the tap (a small bottle of Evian costs pounds 1.80 at the bar). 'You want anything?' I'm asked more than once. 'What have you got?' 'Love doves (a form of Ecstasy) pounds 15 a tab.'

It's a similar story later at an all-night club in north London, except that here the crowd is slightly older, the music is more varied and there are proper 'chill-out' rooms for weary ravers to rest in. This is the heart of London's official rave scene, where Ecstasy is the orthodoxy and everyone wants to get high. But no one is selling anything unorthodox, and no one is collapsing in a twitchy heap. There's not a trace of GHB to be seen. One regular raver refers to it as 'the holy grail': the new drug no one has yet used, but everyone wants to try.

AT THE police station in Cosham, a few miles from Lovedean, Detective Sergeant Chris Healey seems bemused by his discovery. 'None of us had heard of GHB before this,' he says. 'We were acting on information from two sources. One was a tip-off from an informant who said that there was a supply of some kind of drug around locally and that people were overdosing and collapsing. Since then, we've found out everything we know about it from the Drugs Enforcement Agency in America.'

One reason why facts about GHB are hard to come by is that it is not licensed as a medicine in Britain, which means that it has no medical history here and that anyone, even a doctor, who wanted to get hold of a supply would have to import it specially. Moreover, GHB is not listed as a controlled drug here; unlike Ecstasy, there is no law against possessing it, selling it, or using it.

Its manufacture is regulated solely by the Medicines Act, which meant that before the raid on 26 April, DS Healey and his boss, Detective Inspector Dave Kilbride, had to get special permission for a warrant. And although they seized 13 litres of the drug and its constituent chemicals, whose street value they estimate to be pounds 30,000, they are unable to charge any of the suspects until permission is granted by the Medicines Control Board. If they do go ahead with a prosecution, the maximum sentence allowed under the Medicines Act is two years' imprisonment and/or a pounds 2,000 fine.

DI Kilbride hands me a bottle. 'We found 2,000 of these,' he says. On the front of the plastic, Tippex-sized bottle is a coloured, smiley sunburst logo, with the words 'GHB, AVOID ALCOHOL' clearly printed on the front. On the back is a comprehensive health warning, giving the recommended dose (two or three capfuls), a warning that it should not be taken in conjunction with other drugs, and details of possible side-effects if too much is consumed. Each bottle, which contains about three doses, sells for pounds 10. 'The danger with this stuff at this early stage,' DI Kilbride says, 'is that it can easily be peddled by people saying it's legal.'

The professional appearance of the bottles is in sharp contrast to the manufacturing process, which seems ridiculously easy. 'It's a stove-top recipe,' DS Healey says. 'Anybody who's been shown how to make it once, and who knew how to test the pH level and where to get the kits from, could make it.'

'I have a recipe for making it at home here on my desk,' Frances Richards at Release confirms. 'It appears that you need two ingredients - gammabutyrol lactone (which can be purchased legally from pharmaceutical suppliers) and sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda (which can be bought from any hardware store). But of course you do need some knowledge of chemistry too.'

THERE have been no reported deaths in the US as a direct result of using the drug, but little is known about the effects of its persistent use. And, as Alan Horton of the Manchester-based drugs agency Lifeline points out: 'The thing about the club scene is that most people take some sort of combination of drugs - be it alcohol, nicotine, poppers (amyl nitrate), LSD, cocaine, E - and there's not been a lot of research done on the effects of synergy, the role of one drug in combination with another. And anyway, the effect of a drug has a lot to do with the environment in which you take it. If you take a drug like GHB, that carries some risk that it can immobilise your body, in a hot, sweaty club, there's a greater chance that that will happen. There's also the fact that if you buy something in a club you can't really know what it is. The consumer has no control whatsoever - it's like buying a TV set off the street, getting it home and finding half the channels don't work. Or like playing Russian roulette.'

The deaths of two teenagers following a rave in Ayr on May bank holiday weekend after taking an 'Ecstasy-type drug' (wrongly reported in some newspapers as being GHB) were a grim reminder of this. 'It's all very well recommending particular doses of GHB and all that,' says Kevin Williams, a regular club-goer, who has written about GHB in the gay press. 'But the thing is that on the gay scene, at least, at that time of night, people don't really pay much attention to what they take or how much. And people come in different shapes and sizes, with different constitutions. So how can you say: 'Just be careful'? What does that mean?'

Martin, a 30-year-old Englishman who lived in Los Angeles for a year and regularly took GHB there, agrees. 'It's extremely volatile,' he says. 'There's a fine line between doing enough and doing too much, and some people have a higher tolerance level than others. It also comes on very quickly - in about 10-15 minutes - and because I've seen people lose it totally when they exceed the dose, or in clubs where it's very hot and stuffy, I used to take it after hours, after I'd been out clubbing.' He describes its effect as 'a kind of melting feeling, like you have water in your boots', and says that 'for sex it's outrageous; it increases your sensitivity hugely.'

Carl, who is 24, has taken GHB three times. It was sold to him in a gay club in London. 'It came in really suddenly on the gay scene, for a two-week period at the end of February,' he says. 'Quite a few people tried it and had side- effects from it. I can't do drugs very well - I mean, I can't take more than about a quarter of an E - but I had quite a lot of this stuff and I had a really good time on it. It was fab; not like a drunken head rush, but more buzzy, trippy even, like a mixture of LSD and E without the speediness. I just had loads of energy and I couldn't stop dancing. It lasted for a long time, several hours.

'The woman who was selling it gave everyone a sheet with instructions. We took two capfuls initially, then another two half an hour later. The four shots cost pounds 5. It tasted very salty, almost like a salt concentrate, and it made me thirsty. But although I had a great time, at least half a dozen people I know collapsed during that two weeks. Some were violently sick, and one had to be taken to hospital. He couldn't breathe properly, and his heart was racing, like palpitations. When they analysed what he had taken, it was mostly GHB, with a bit of opium mixed in. As far as I know, he hadn't taken anything else that night.'

Carl says that he wouldn't take GHB again. 'It's obvious that the effects are unpredictable, not like E,' he says. 'So many people were ill with it that the clubs stamped down on it pretty quickly, and I haven't come across it again since. Once a few people get ill, the police get involved and the clubs don't want that, so there's a process of self-regulation. Anyway, it has a bad reputation on the gay scene now.'

Many club-managers on the 'straight' scene operate a similar process of self-regulation by admitting only recognised dealers into their clubs, but straight club culture is larger and looser than its gay counterpart; word of mouth passes round much more slowly. And while clubbers say that they are careful about where they buy their drugs and about how they mix them, the risk remains that for young people new to the scene the promise of a cheap, legal high could result in more casualties. Users warn, too, that problems with liquid GHB also arise because people buying it cannot know its concentration, and may be tempted to take more sips from the bottle.

Martin, who says that two people he knew in LA who were dealing GHB have now been hospitalised 'because they totally lost the plot', thinks that it will be popular in Britain, 'given the opportunity. For every person who won't touch it, there'll be two who can't wait to try it,' he says. 'But in a way I hope it doesn't catch on in clubs because people will abuse it, and there will be casualties.'

'GHB is this week's drug,' adds Laura Gamble of the Brighton Drug Advice and Information Service. 'It's probably just beginning, and it's only a matter of time before some entrepreneurial spirit brings it into the clubs. And there's a minority, both the hard core and the kids who are just experimenting, who will try anything once.'

(Photographs omitted)