Student died after taking unclassified drug

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A coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure today into the death of a talented medical student who died after she took an unclassified liquid party drug.

Cheerleader Hester Stewart, 21, consumed Gamma-butyrolactane (GBL) with on-off boyfriend Anthony Morrison after returning to his shared house on April 6 following an American football awards ceremony.

Mr Morrison said that he woke in bed beside Ms Stewart, a University of Sussex student studying molecular medicine, in his room in Brighton, East Sussex, to find her dead.

GBL is banned in several countries, including the United States and Sweden, but is not outlawed in Britain and is available in some health food shops and over the internet.

The inquest was told that although the level of GBL consumed by Ms Stewart was low and would have led to full recovery in some people, its combination with alcohol proved fatal.

Brighton and Hove Coroner Veronica Hamilton-Deeley said she was satisfied that Ms Stewart took GBL knowingly and that "on the balance of probabilities" she took it willingly.

Sitting at Brighton County Court, she said: "Whenever drugs such as GBL are used recreationally people need to understand the use of them is very much a question of playing Russian Roulette.

"In other words, it may be possible to survive recreational drugs over a period of time and then for no apparent reason the use of such drugs will result in death."

Ms Hamilton-Deeley added that although she believed Ms Stewart was aware that GBL "might not mix well with alcohol" she was satisfied she did not know the full extent of its impact.

Ms Stewart, a cheerleader with the Brighton and Sussex Waves, spent the evening of April 5 at an American football awards ceremony at the Thistle Hotel in Brighton.

Later, in the early hours of the following morning, she returned with Mr Morrison to his home in Ladysmith Road, Brighton, where they both consumed GBL after having earlier been drinking.

He said that Ms Stewart placed a piece of mango in her mouth before ingesting the drug to help masks its foul taste and appeared to show no immediate signs to concern him.

But he explained how he woke in his bed at around 9am to find Ms Stewart dead beside him and started to panic over what to do.

He told the hearing: "I woke up and tried to give her a hug. I felt something and it turned out to be faeces. I jumped up and looked at her and she didn't look right.

"I started panicking. I shouted but there was no response."

Mr Morrison said after failing to rouse her, he tried to dial 999 but his mobile phone battery was dead and there was no landline in the house, where other people were also staying.

One of them, Anthony Sinabinox, said he heard Mr Morrison "wailing" in the shower.

Mr Sinabinox said he asked Mr Morrison whether everything was all right, and he replied: "This might sound crazy but someone may be dead in my room."

An ambulance was called but no resuscitation attempts were made because of an absence of any heart activity and police later took over the investigation into the death.

Mr Morrison was arrested by Sussex Police on suspicion of supplying drugs but no further action was taken against him in relation to the death because the purchase and use of GBL is not unlawful.

The GBL consumed by Ms Stewart was bought over the internet and Mr Morrison said it was the first time she had taken the drug, which has an industrial use.

Questioned by Ms Stewart's father, Dr Alan Stewart, Mr Morrison said it was made clear on the internet that GBL was not for human consumption but that they had discussed taking it beforehand.

Consultant histopathologist Dr Andrew Rainey, of the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, said the fact that the drug and alcohol had been combined caused her death.

Following the tragedy, Ms Stewart's family has led a campaign to press the Government to ban GBL in the UK.

Last month her mother Maryon Stewart, a nutritionist, met Home Secretary Alan Johnson to ask why the drug had not been classified as recommended by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last year.

A revised cause of death was recorded stating that Ms Stewart died as a result of respiratory depression due to GBL toxicity in the presence of alcohol.

Detective Inspector Carwyn Hughes, of Sussex Police, said he believed Ms Stewart took the drug willingly but could not be drawn on whether she was fully aware of its effects.

The inquest also heard that the level of GBL found in her blood and urine were at the lower end of the scale and in some cases would not have ended in death.

Mr Hughes said: "In reality, Hester was very unlucky. With the level concerned, she may have survived but unfortunately she didn't."

Ms Stewart's flatmate, Ellie Webber, said she was "not surprised" that she had taken GBL as she had used recreational drugs, including ecstasy, in the past.

And Ms Stewart's older brother, Chesney Stewart, said he was also aware of his sister using drugs previously.

He said: "On occasion she had smoked some cannabis and I know she had done ecstasy but that was spurred on by emotional distress from an ex-boyfriend.

"I'm led to believe that she had never taken ecstasy again ... but I can't say that she has never taken drugs."

Mr Stewart added that his sister called him just before 3am on the day she died as she often phoned relatives to tell them she loved them.

But Mr Stewart, whose birthday took place days beforehand, was perturbed by how she sounded and said his sister "didn't seem her usual self" and "seemed strange".

Outside court, holding a bottle of GBL, Dr Stewart said there was now some closure to the case but he issued a stern warning to anyone who uses, trades or profits from the drug.

He said: "Society has the right to question the motives of any person who posseses, trades or profits in this.

"To any such person, I beg you, tip it away now or you will find yourself in a coroner's court, in a criminal court or in a coffin."