'Tinkering' with GHB Laws Will Not Prevent Deaths or Serious Crimes

Drug experts say reclassifying the party and date rape drug will not reduce its potential to cause damage.
Max Daly
London, GB
March 30, 2021, 11:57am
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Photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The British government’s decision to reclassify GHB from a class C to a class B drug will be ineffective in stopping deaths linked to the substance, according to drug experts. 

A potent sedative known as “G” or “liquid ecstasy”, the drug – a clear liquid often dispensed with a pipette – is used in the chemsex scene and by a growing number of clubbers because of its euphoric high. However, it has also been used by offenders in high-profile rape and murder cases, such as serial killer Stephen Port, who used the drug to sedate four men he later raped and killed, and Reynhard Sinaga, who raped and assaulted 40 men. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the move, which will lead to tougher sentences for possession and supply of the drug, on Tuesday, following a recommendation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in November. The ACMD said the drug has been linked to thousands of emergency hospital admissions and 219 deaths over the past ten years. In 2019, there were 27 deaths linked to GHB in England and Wales.

Taking the right dose of GHB is notoriously tricky; the difference between getting high and overdosing is a matter of milligrams. The drug – derived from the industrial cleaning solvent GBL, which is used to manufacture spandex and paint stripper – is also addictive, thought to be harder to withdraw from than heroin, and dangerous when mixed with alcohol. 

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However, reclassification is an inadequate tool for improving public safety or reducing use, experts told VICE World News.

“There may be good reasons why GHB should be reclassified, particularly in relation to involvement in drug-related deaths, toxicity combined with alcohol and concern around dependence and mental health. But classification of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act doesn’t have a great impact on levels of use,” said Harry Sumnall, professor of substance use at Liverpool John Moores University.

Sumnall cited the fact that cannabis, a class B drug, has been taken by more than 10 million people in England and Wales. 

Patel said she wanted to reclassify GHB because of its use in “truly sickening” high profile rape cases. However, Sumnall said the reclassification of GHB “is not an efficient means to tackle drug facilitated sexual assault”. 

“Considering the systemic failures in investigating and successfully prosecuting sexual offences, slightly harsher penalties for possession of GHB are unlikely to make a great difference to the motivation of perpetrators,” he explained.

Restricting the supply of GHB’s precursor chemicals, GBL and 1,4-BD, under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations Act 2001, as well as introducing other licensing conditions, said Sumnall, “could lead to reductions in availability of these compounds”, as it would close loopholes which previously permitted sales as “cleaning materials”. 

Alex Stevens, professor in criminal justice at the University of Kent, said: “There is very little evidence that reclassifying GHB will have any effect on its availability or its use in sexual assaults. As has often happened, the government is tinkering with classification rather than taking actions which might actually work.

“We know from past drug reclassifications that they have very little effect on use. For example, there was no change in the trend in cannabis use either when it was moved down from class B to C in 2004, or when it was moved back up to class B in 2009. 

“Trends in drug use and harm are driven more by availability, price, purity and the social setting in which they are used than what class they are in.”

Imani Robinson, from drug law charity Release, said reclassifying GHB will fail to reduce drug use and instead further stigmatise and criminalise people who use the drug, especially people who engage in chemsex.