On January 23rd, Joel Taylor, former star of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, was discovered dead in his cabin aboard Harmony of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. Taylor, originally from Oklahoma, was only 38. Although an official cause of death has yet to be released, multiple news outlets are reporting that Taylor actually died due to a massive overdose of GHB and possibly, several other so-called “party” or “club” drugs.
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Overdosing on Vacation—A Cautionary Tale
“It appears the death could be an overdose and Joel Taylor was consuming controlled substances.” ~ Law enforcement sources, according to TMZ On that fateful Monday night leading into Tuesday morning, Taylor attended a wild dance party onboard the cruise ship. Apparently, drugs were flowing freely—not just GHB, but also ecstasy, ketamine, and cocaine. There are reports of people being arrested even before the ship left Ft. Lauderdale. Witnesses say that during the party, they saw Taylor take a large amount of GHB. Later, he collapsed while still on the dance floor. Two unnamed people physically carried Taylor back to his cabin room and left him there to “sleep it off”. But when he was later found unresponsive and pronounced dead, law enforcement authorities were notified Harmony of the Seas docked in San Juan Puerto Rico.
First Things First—What are Party Drugs?
Also called club or rave drugs, party drugs are a loose category of drugs so named because of where they are usually consumed—nightclubs, discotheques, dance parties, and raves. Not surprisingly, party drugs are most popular among the groups who frequent those events—teens, young adults, and the LGBT community. Although each drug differs in specifics, they are commonly consumed for a number of desired effects that are said to enhance the club/party atmosphere, such as:
- Increased social intimacy
- Sensory stimulation from pulsing dance music and flashing lights
- Lowered inhibition
- Heightened sexual arousal and pleasure
- More energy, allowing users to dance and party longer
They are also often referred to as “designer drugs”, because in most cases, they are synthesized in a laboratory rather than extracted from a plant. Let’s take a closer look at the party drugs that may have played a role in the overdose death of Joel Taylor.
GHB—Grievous Bodily Harm
Gamma-hydroxybutyrate is a potent central nervous system (CNS) depressant that actually has a legitimate medical use as a treatment for narcolepsy. However, it is popular as a recreational drug of abuse because at low doses, it acts as a stimulant and aphrodisiac. Because GHB is so powerful that the recreation dose can be as low as .5 grams, and is usually no higher than 3 grams. Effects of GHB last up to 4 hours—and even longer at higher doses. But it is at these higher doses that the biggest dangers arise:
- Blurred vision
- Respiratory depression
- Unconsciousness lasting 3 to 4 hours
Of special relevance, when GHB is consumed with alcohol, the hazards are multiplied. In addition to worsened breathing suppression, the combination of unrouseable unconsciousness and nausea has the potential to be lethal—death by choking on one’s own vomit. Unfortunately, this GHB/alcohol combination is extremely common, because it is clear, odorless, and tasteless. This is precisely why it is also popular as a date rape drug, because it can be slipped into someone’s drink without their knowledge. In addition to the possibility of overdose, GHB can also be dangerously impure. Amateur chemists can make GHB relatively easily using common household chemicals such as drain cleaner, floor stripper, and paint thinner.
Ecstasy—Deadly Vitamin X
Unlike GHB, methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as MDMA or Ecstasy, currently has no legitimate medical uses. As a recreational drug, Ecstasy is abused for its effects as a stimulant, aphrodisiac, and euphoriant. Peaks effects can be felt in as little as 30 minutes and may last up to 8 hours. Ecstasy may be the most popular party drug on the planet. In 2014, as many as 29 million people around the world used Ecstasy. In one study, nearly 9 out of 10 rave attendees self-report having used Ecstasy at least once, with HALF reporting past-month use. Part of the reason for Ecstasy’s popularity is the mistaken assumption that it is a “safe” drug. On the contrary, “X” can be extremely dangerous. Between 2005 and 2011, for example, the number of emergency room visits involving Ecstasy jumped by 128%. Significantly, about a third of these ER trips also involved alcohol. Signs of Ecstasy overdose include:
- Panic attacks
- Extremely high blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Renal failure
- Hyperthermia—elevated body temperature
- Severe dehydration
Annually in America, there are approximately 23,000 ER trips involving MDMA. Scores have deaths have been reported, primarily due to hyperthermia and dehydration. Of special note, because the duration of effects is so long, taking multiple doses can result in a toxic accumulation in the blood, increasing the likelihood of adverse effects. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, MDMA abuse is also associated with an increase in risky behaviors—more sexual partners, unprotected sex, and injection drug use.
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Ketamine—The Special K That’s Not Good for You
Ketamine is a medication used as a surgical anesthetic, a sedative, and as a treatment for chronic pain. When given intravenously, effects are felt rapidly and are of short duration—occurring within 5 minutes and lasting about 25 minutes. Abused recreationally, “Special K” can be mixed with drinks, snorted, or added to tobacco or marijuana cigarettes. Users will experience a profound dreamlike state characterized by hallucinations and a distortion of reality. This is often referred to as “going down the K-Hole”. Depending upon the dosage and the method of consumption, these effects can last for hours. Chronic ketamine abuse has been linked to:
- Lingering confusion
- Ongoing panic attacks
- Memory Impairment
Perhaps the most serious side-effect of ketamine abuse is the possibility of severe bladder damage:
- Difficulty urinating
- Increased frequency
- Bleeding from the bladder
In extreme cases, ketamine cystitis can require complete surgical removal of the entire bladder.
Cocaine—A Blast from the Past
Although its heyday was in the 1980s, cocaine—blow, snow, nose candy, etc.— has rebounded in popularity. Right now, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that cocaine production is increasing, making it a bigger threat in America than it has been in at least a decade. Cocaine is abused recreationally because it is a powerful and fast-acting stimulant. Whether snorted, injected or smoked, cocaine provides users with a euphoric rush and a surge of energy. Like many other stimulants, cocaine triggers several adverse side effects, including:
- Accelerated heartbeat
- Elevated blood pressure
- Stoke—a SEVENFOLD increased risk
- Brain damage
Cocaine is also highly addictive. The drug begins rewiring pathways in the brain from the very first use.
Rave Culture and Drug Abuse
A 2015 study determined that people within the rave sub-culture are more likely to both try illicit drugs and use them with greater frequency than the general population. Pointedly, the more frequent a person attends rave events, the higher the likelihood of drug use. Hispanics, people who live in large cities, and those with higher incomes are at the greatest risk, while females and people with strong religious convictions are at the lowest risk. Interestingly, music preference plays a role—individuals who prefer dance music are more likely to use illicit drugs than those who listen to other genres such as rock, country, funk, etc.
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What Can We Learn from the Overdose Death of Joel Taylor?
The first takeaway from the Joel Taylor’s overdose death is that substance abuse can impact ANYONE—even a successful, famous, and well-regarded celebrity who grew up in small-town Oklahoma. From the outside, Taylor had it all, but none of that kept him safe from the dangers of recreational drug use. Next, we should realize that drug abuse does not happen in a vacuum. There are nearly always warning signs and risk factors that concerned friends and family members can look out for. For example, Taylor was a gay man. While that in itself is not a sign of substance abuse, it IS a risk factor. Specifically, in 2015, the NIDA reported that sexual minorities are more than twice as likely to abuse substances or have an addictive disorder than those people who identify as heterosexual. Just as important, however, is the takeaway that there is no safe level of drug use. Taylor’s overdose could have been due to any of several reasons:
- Too high a dose
- Substituted drugs
- Accumulated toxicity
- Multidrug intoxication—95% of all fatal overdoses involve more than one substance
- Genetic vulnerability
Regardless of the specific “reason”, ANY life lost to drug use is a tragedy that leaves an irreparable hole in the lives of their loved ones. Reed Timmer, Taylor’s co-star on Storm Chasers, had this to say: “I wish we could have just one more storm chase. I’ll miss you forever, Joel. We lost a legend.”
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