A highly caffeinated, but legal alcoholic drink was responsible for sickening dozens and sent nine Central Washington students to the hospital, prompting initial police fears that the party-goers had been drugged, police said today.
Police said some 50 students became sick after consuming large amounts of the controversial but legal beverage Four Loko, which combines as much alcohol found in a six pack of beer with as much caffeine in five cups of coffee.
This is the latest incident involving turbo-charged alcoholic energy drinks like Four Loko. Already such drinks are banned on some college campuses and today the Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said he would ask the Food and Drug Administration to ban the drinks nationwide.
The university announced at a news conference today in Ellensburg, Wash., that the blood-alcohol content of students ranged from .12 percent to .335 percent. In Washington, 0.08 is the legal limit for intoxication. 0.3 can be lethal.
Nine students were hospitalized after the Oct. 8 party at a house where about 50 people had been drinking.
Police called to the scene of the house party, in Rosyln, Wash., about 30 miles from the university, found young people – many of them women – passed out throughout the house and on the front lawn.
Authorities at the time said they did not believe incident was a result of heavy drinking, but that someone had surreptitiously slipped drugs, possibly date rape drugs, into people's drinks.
Police today said there was no evidence of drugs found, only the energy drink.
"Perhaps even more disturbing," said Chief Steve Rittereiser was that students were drinking beer and vodka in addition to Four Loko.
"It was really scary," Katelynn Allen, a Central Washington University freshman who was at the party but did not drink told ABC News affiliate KOMO-TV.
"Everything was going fine, the music was playing, people were having fun - and then all of a sudden all the girls were puking everywhere," she said. "Girls were outside on their backs."
Nicknamed "blackout in a can" and "liquid cocaine," Four Loko has already been banned from several college campuses after students became ill.
Central Washington President James Guardino announced a campus-wide ban on caffeine-infused alcoholic drinks effective immediately.
The incident "mostly involved freshman college students," McKenna said. "The wide availability of alcoholic energy drinks can be deadly. A 120 pound woman who drinks two cans can reach levels of toxicity."
"Someone drinking alcoholic energy drinks is four times more likely to drive than someone just drinking alcohol," he said.
Attorneys general in New York and New Jersey have also called for federal investigations following incidents involving college students in those states.
"There's no redeeming social purpose to be served by having the beverage," Ramapao College President Peter Mercer told The Associated Press after he banned the drink on his campus when several students became sick.
Calls to Four Loko's manufacture, Chicago-based Phusion Projects, were not returned. But the company recently told ABC News it goes to "great lengths" to make sure its drinks are not sold to underage consumers.
"Our cans feature seven different warnings about the product's alcohol content and the necessity of an ID for purchase," the company said in a statement provided to ABC News. "And we're the only manufacturer to prominently place a 'WE ID' message on our can. We also offer free, point-of-sale materials to stores selling our products that reinforce the importance of asking for identification when selling any alcoholic beverage."
The company says it also does not advertise on Facebook or YouTube because it doesn't want to target young people.
The FDA is currently investigating Four Loko and similar beverages to determine if they are safe and legal.
"FDA intends to evaluate the information submitted by the manufacturers and other available scientific evidence as soon as possible in order to determine whether caffeine can be safely and lawfully added to alcoholic beverages," spokesman Michael Herndon said in an email last week.