Looking beyond the surface level of the notorious date-rape and chemsex drug
Writer: Sophie Maho Chan
Editor: Javier Bautista
Artist: Iona Jenkins
Imagine this: You walk into a club, and in the corner, you see two girls taking a selfie together. As one of the girls posts the picture on her Instagram story, the other reaches into her bag. Isn’t it a little late for lipstick? But instead, with practised ease, she pulls out a little dropper bottle filled with a translucent liquid and adds a few drops into her sprite.
What she just used is GHB – otherwise known as ‘G’ or liquid ecstasy. Chemically, GHB is a fatty acid derivative of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows brain signal transmission. While easily manufactured, GHB is also a naturally occurring chemical in the brain, binding to the same receptors involved in GABA pathways. Thus, GHB is a depressant that produces similar effects of euphoria and relaxation as alcohol, but without the less desirable side-effects of hangovers and slurred speech. For this reason, as well as its price of £1 per millilitre, it is a drug on the rise among partygoers.
But as always, there is a negative side to the story — and in the case of GHB, the consequences are life-threatening. If taken even a single millilitre above one’s tolerance, it can lead to a slippery slope of unconsciousness, coma and even death. According to the Global Drug Survey in 2018, one in four women and one in six men out of 1,000 have overdosed by GHB in a year. Furthermore, if regularly consumed, addiction can develop within 2 weeks and once past the two months line, attempts at withdrawal can lead to memory loss, epileptic seizure and insomnia.
But that is not the end. GHB has also been considered a notorious ‘date rape drug’ for decades, and its media coverage in such cases has made a comeback in recent years — particularly in the LGBTQ+ scene. Notorious cases include Reynhard Sinaga, often portrayed as ‘Britain’s most prolific rapist’, who was sentenced on January 6th 2020, as well as the serial killer Stephen Port in 2016.
The question is, how did GHB become such a popular recreational drug? And more importantly, what does this mean for the LGBTQ+ community?
The LGBTQ+ community suffers disproportionately from GHB related cases and deaths. London-based gay rights activist David Stuart describes how GHB related deaths are reaching “epidemic proportions” and compares it to the AIDS crisis. He hears of GHB-related deaths at least twice or thrice a month, especially since it has replaced ecstasy as “the drug of choice” in the community. Statistics back up his claim: currently, GHB has the third-highest death toll in Europe, and according to a study by Imperial College London, GHB related deaths are increasing every year, especially among men. What’s more terrifying is that experts suspect that these numbers are severely underreported, due to GHB’s undetectability and the overall indifferent attitude of society towards GHB and the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, in the UK, GHB is only classified as a Class C drug — punishments for its possession is more lenient than those for weed.
Once we broaden our perspective, one thing becomes clear: this GHB epidemic ultimately ties back to broader sociocultural processes. For example, some academics have attributed the comeback of GHB to the accessibility of cheap drugs through online shopping and the development of pills like PrEP in recent years. As HIV was for decades seen as a ‘gay virus’, such inventions have been linked to the rejuvenation of hook-up culture and GHB-fueled chemsex parties within the community. However, with dating apps today, it can also be argued that chemsex parties are more dangerous than ever, with those involved often having a severe lack of responsibility towards others. Finally, it is an understatement to say that the GHB crisis is largely overlooked by the general public and policymakers. Is this because society has a tendency to brush ‘‘problems of minorities’ aside?
GHB is no laughing matter, especially within the LGBTQ+ community. To tackle this issue, we must first look beyond the surface-level stigma against drugs and chemsex, and remind ourselves of the importance of empathy and responsibility towards others within our society.