GHB use is on the rise

Kevin O'Meara

GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) or GBL (gamma-butyrolactone), colloquially known as G or Gina, is a recreational drug which, following a similar trend in London over the past six years, first gained a foothold in the MSM Chemsex scene where it became popular due to its euphoric, sexual, and psychological effects. And now, again following a similar pattern to the UK , GHB use among the wider recreational drugs-scene is on the rise.

To achieve these desired effects, a user must carefully calculate the dosage required, or risk “going under”.

Going under is when a dose, measured in millilitres, is too high and completely sedates the user. If not monitored properly, this can quickly lead to coma and death.

First synthesised in the 1960’s, GHB was used as a treatment for severe neurological disorders such as narcolepsy and cataplexy. It first began to infiltrate nightlife somewhere in the mid-2000’s, when due to its odourless, colourless, mostly tasteless, and usually liquid form, it was used as a date-rape drug.

Then, it spread to the Chemsex scene where it was used in conjunction with other more established drugs such as crystal meth, cocaine, and ecstasy. Unlike these more established party drugs however, GHB is a depressant, not a stimulant.

GHB is exceptionally addictive, with full addiction happening in as little as two weeks, and, due to its form, it is very easily weaponised as a tool of sexual assault.

The Grindr Killer, Stephen Port, was sentenced to life without parole in 2016 for the murders of four young men, as well as the rape of many others, in London from 2014-2015. Port used GHB, as well as some other drugs, to render his victims unconscious before raping and murdering them. There were severe deficiencies in the initial police investigation around the deaths, with as many as 58 other suspected victims.

St Michaels ward, in Beaumont Hospital, is Ireland’s only GHB detoxification unit. First opened in 2014, the detox unit had one patient. It had just five across both 2015 and 2016. Now, just five years later the number has ballooned to 76, itself a worrying increase from the 49 referred in 2018.

Detox from GHB is extremely dangerous – even with medical supervision. Harmen Beurmanjer is a leading GHB researcher based at Novadic-Kentron, The Netherlands.  Speaking with The Guardian in November 2018, Dr Beurmanjer said: “It starts with shaking, then anxiety, paranoia and finally complete delirium, you cannot withdraw alone; you need medical attention. And withdrawal symptoms happen very quickly – a person will have entered delirium within six hours.”

The psychological effects of GHB play a massive role in how quickly users become dependent. Unlike other drugs which form an addiction over a more prolonged period, full-blown G addiction usually takes hold in two weeks or less. 

“It won’t cure your anxiety; it’s just that you don’t feel it when you’re on GHB. And they become addicted so fast because they feel so great. But when they quit, they say, ‘I feel like I’ve lost part of my personality. With GHB I know how to talk to people, I can be my best self – without GHB, I’m afraid of everything.’ GHB takes over your emotional regulation system. So when you come off it, you realise you can’t cope with your emotions properly.” said Beurmanjer. 

While referrals to St. Michaels were initially made up of members of the gay community, this year 55 per cent of the patients have been gay and 45 per cent have been straight. There have been 15 GHB overdoses registered by Irish hospitals. Though as this figure does not include accident and emergency or outpatient services, it makes the actual numbers hard to quantify. Often, GHB isn’t screened for and even when it is, only remains detectable for around 12 hours. So why is G use still on the rise?

There seem to be three main factors contributing to the rise of GHB use. Firstly, there is the misconception that G is a “clean” high, especially in relation to other recreational drugs such as cocaine or ecstasy. Users report no hangover the next day, with some even going so far as to say they feel refreshed after a night of GHB use. Secondly, the chemicals used to produce GHB or GBL – mostly solvents intended for industrial use – are readily available online. Which, thirdly, means G can be bought incredibly easily, on many social media sites and dating apps, for less than a euro per dose.

The Irish government has been notoriously slow in their response to the failure of the war on drugs. Instead of it being dealt with as a public health issue, drug arrests have long clogged up our judicial system and taxed police resources. Drug users come from all walks of life and they show no signs of stopping. The recent developments in drug possession for personal use are very welcome, but it is clear we still have a long way to go.

Kevin O’Meara

Image Credit: Wikimedia