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Drugs

We Asked an Expert Why it’s So Easy to Overdose on GHB

It's the drug that reportedly caused more than 20 overdoses at the Electric Parade Festival in Melbourne over the weekend.

by Samantha Howard
20 February 2017, 6:42am

Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate, or Juice as it's commonly known, is suspected to be the cause of over 20 overdoses at the Electric Parade Festival in Melbourne over the weekend. The tragedy comes weeks after three deaths and 20 hospitalisation in Melbourne from another drug, identified as a batch of NBOMe sold as MDMA.

To find out what GHB does to the body, we turned to Dr David Caldicott, a senior clinical lecturer at the Australian National University medical school.

VICE: Hi David, let's get straight into it. What exactly is GHB and where does it come from?
David Caldicott: GHB was a drug developed in the 60s to aid with the study of another chemical—a neurotransmitter known as GABA—on rats. GHB was observed to increase growth hormones [in the animals], so by the 80s it had became popular in the bodybuilding community as a muscle growth stimulant. People thought, "if it's good enough for animals then it's good enough for me." But there was no evidence it could actually increase hormones in humans.

Around the same time, people realised GHB produces a euphoric effect similar to other drugs. The problem is, the dosage for this euphoria is much higher, and quite close to the dosage necessary to put you in a coma. The other problem with GHB is that it is pretty much the only drug that can be consumed in liquid form—apart from alcohol. And we know for a fact that people at music festivals regularly mismeasure their volumes.

The other interesting thing about this chemicals is used in day-to-day industries. I know that furniture restorers use GHB, and it's also used in the plastic industry.

So what does it do to your brain?
It turns off anything that is a gamma neurotransmitter. This affects your breathing, which lowers your blood pressure and stops your heart. If that's what you want, then it's a cracker.

Why is it such a dangerous drug?
Because it's not a good thing to have your breathing and your heart stop! Not unless you're being monitored in a medical environment. There'll be a lot of emergency doctors in Australia who'll be holding their heads in their hands now this is happening again.

So why do you think so many young people are taking GHB when they're warned of the risks?
No idea! But let's not kid ourselves, Australia is a society that wants to consume nasty amounts of drugs. On many chart and tables, Australia is a gold medallist in terms of the quantity of drugs we consume. In the mid 2000s there was a generational knowledge that emerged about GHB about how to dose and what to use and not to mix and things like that, but now that generation has grown up and moved on, so that knowledge has been lost. The kids in club today don't know their doses. We have a group of people who are more or less involved in GHB again, but without the knowledge. It's a real shame.

What do we do about it?
The other part of the equation is that in Australia we tell people to just say no to drugs. This is still a very 1980s approach. The rest of the world has moved to harm-reduction policies that include education and pill testing, but not Australia. Many of us who work in a global medical framework believe that Australian politicians are letting Australians be sacrificed for some kind of ideology, as though death will get the message through to stop people taking drugs. As we're seeing, that's just not the case.

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Tagged:
overdose
juice
GHB
pill testing
David Caldicott
Electric Parade Festival
party drug