Opinion: UK government crack down on GHB – misguided and ill-informed
The highs and lows of Chemsex seems to have become an established part of the sex lives of gay men. It used to be seen as something a bit illicit, but these days it feels as if we’re being a bit naive or prudish if chems aren’t being used to add a bit of spice to our everyday hookups.
One of the drugs frequently associated with Chemsex is GHB – gamma-hydroxybutyric acid.
A small amount of GHB can make you feel euphoric and turned-on – it can help you lose your inhibitions and intensify your sexual experiences.
Too much GHB and it can knock you unconscious.
In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases where GHB has been used as a ‘date-rape’ drug – resulting in victims of sexual assault or murder.
Responding to the perceived risks of GHB, the UK government has announced that it will be reclassifying GHB from a ‘class C’ substance to a ‘class B’ substance.
This change in classification will mean tougher penalties for anyone found in possession of GHB – making it equivalent to amphetamines and cannabis. Being convicted of the possession of a class B substance carries with it a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The change in classification follows a review that was triggered by the high-profile arrests of serial rapist Reynhard Sinaga and serial killer Stephen Port. Both predators used GHB to incapacitate their victims.
Who is protected by a crackdown on GHB?
There are risks with GHB.
People have died as a result of using this drug. Exact numbers are difficult to quantify – due to challenges in reporting and toxicology.
Looking at the Literature Review prepared for the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs – the report of which is what the government is basing its policies on – one of the conclusions is: “It can be inferred from the data that GHB use increased in the UK population until 2015. Since then, the evidence suggests a plateauing in use, but a small and steady pattern of use and harm.”
In the context of other health issues, the numbers aren’t huge.
According to the Literature Review, in the period 2011-2015 there were 61 deaths in London that were associated with GHB. Factor in that this is probably under-reported by a bit, and that there’s probably been a bit of an increase since 2015, it’s obviously an important issue but the numbers are still relatively small.
In 2019, there were 90 fatal stabbings in London.
While it is clear that GHB has been used as a weapon by predators in high-profile cases, if they hadn’t had access to GHB there’s nothing to suggest that those predators wouldn’t have found another weapon.
If you want to protect people from sexual assault and rape, then it’s clear that the drug that’s most commonly used is alcohol.
Drugs don’t make people become rapists.
Criminalising GHB won’t make gay men safe – it is, overwhelmingly, gay men that use GHB. Criminalising GHB increases the secrecy and shame that will surround the use of chems such as GHB.
Criminalising GHB makes it harder for harm-reduction information and education to effectively reach the people who need it.
Most gay men in London will have had a first-hand experience with someone who has overdosed on GHB. Most gay men in London will know or know of someone who has died as a result of a GHB overdose.
Any loss of life is tragic. Most deaths caused by GHB are likely to have been preventible if users had access to information and education.
An aggressive ‘war on drugs’ doesn’t help drug users – it harms them. An aggressive war on drugs doesn’t protect gay men, it criminalises us.
An aggressive war on drugs doesn’t protect gay men from sexual assault – drugs don’t make people become rapists.