A History of GHB, the Club Drug at the Center of London's Serial Killer Case
It's the Jekyll and Hyde of recreational drugs: Take the right dose and its euphoric; take a milligram too much and it becomes deadly.
"I can't go on any more. I took the life of my friend Gabriel. We were just having some fun at a mate's place and I got carried away and gave him another shot of G. It was an accident. I know I will go to prison if I go to the police. I have taken what G I had left, with sleeping pills. If it does kill me it's what I deserve. This way I can at least be with Gabriel again."
This was the "suicide note" clasped in the hand of Daniel Whitworth, a 21-year-old trainee chef from Kent whose dead body was found slumped against a churchyard wall in Barking, east London, in September last year.
At the time, the note made sense to police. A few weeks earlier, Daniel's boyfriend, Gabriel Kovari, had been found dead in the same churchyard of a suspected GHB overdose. "Drugs killed lovers found dead at Barking church" reported the local paper, in what appeared to be a Romeo and Juliet–style tragedy, with GHB, a drug heavily linked to London's gay party scene, as the poison.
Three months earlier, the body of trainee fashion designer Anthony Walgate was found nearby: another young gay man who had died of a GHB overdose. Police described the three deaths as "unusual but not suspicious."
It was only when a fourth body—that of forklift truck driver Jack Taylor—was discovered in similar circumstances last month that police began to suspect a serial killer.
Last week, the Old Bailey heard that Stephen Port—a 40-year-old chef and rent boy with a penchant for online dating sites, who'd appeared on an episode of Celebrity Masterchef—had used GHB as his weapon of choice to kill the four men. Prosecutors allege Port invited the young men to his flat in Barking after meeting them online, before giving them lethal quantities of the drug, raping them, and then dumping their bodies nearby. The note found in Daniel Whitworth's hand is reportedly now undergoing more forensic tests.
At the center of this grim case is the Jekyll and Hyde of recreational drugs: GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate). Known simply as "G," the sedative anesthetic synthesized in the 1920s provides a euphoric high and can increase sex drive when taken in the right doses. Get the dose wrong, however, and the substance becomes toxic; there's a reason that GHB and its narcotic stablemate GBL—a precursor of GHB, used to make spandex and paint stripper, that transforms into GHB when it's ingested—are known by some as "Satan's urine."
An odorless, oily liquid that tastes slightly salty, GHB was developed in the USA as a pre-medication to help patients sleep before surgery, but later withdrawn due to its unwanted side effects. It was later used by bodybuilders in the 1980s because of its ability to increase growth hormones in the body.
During the 2000s, under the brand "liquid ecstasy," GHB had become a popular alternative to MDMA on the gay clubbing scene. It was cheap, easy to smuggle into clubs in Muji vials or those little squeezy soy sauce bottles you get in Itsu, and it got people going for the post-club orgies that were beginning to rise in popularity.
At the time, GHB was better known to the wider British public as the "date rape drug," after a growing number of reports that it had been used by sexual predators as a powerful sedative to spike women's drinks before raping them.
In 2003, GHB was swiftly banned after two high profile cases involving the drug. First, Welshman David Meachen was sentenced to ten years in prison after meeting a woman in a bar, spiking her drink with the drug, and raping her. Next, serial rapist Lea Shakespeare was given ten life sentences after it was revealed he had spiked the drinks of three of his victims with GHB.
Soon, women were fearful of leaving their drinks unattended in the pub, or even accepting business cards. The media hype sparked an array of questionable anti-drink spiking gadgets produced to cash in on people's fears, such as beer mats, straws, wine glass lids, and nail polish that claimed to alert people to the presence of GHB. Studies would later show that real-life instances of GHB being used as a date rape drug were far less frequent than the scare stories would have it, with one suggesting that the most common date rape drug was alcohol.
Meanwhile, in clubland, the GHB ban had sparked a heavy rise in the use of its far more dangerous—but legal—alternative, GBL. The substance has an even steeper dosing curve than GHB, meaning that a couple of milligrams too many, especially if mixed with alcohol, can be the difference between getting high and overdosing.
By the late 2000s, men in Britain's gay clubbing scene were increasingly waking up in hospital beds after collapsing on the dance floor or at house parties. One south London hospital near Vauxhall, one of the capital's key gay clubbing districts, reported receiving at least three GHB or GBL overdose cases per week in 2009—and the number of fatalities began creeping up.
These casualties failed to attract much national media attention—possibly because they involved gay men, not children or attractive young women—until 21-year-old Brighton medical student Hester Stewart died in 2009. Her death caused a media furor over how such a dangerous drug could still be legal, and GBL was banned later that year.
Now GHB and GBL—alongside crystal meth and mephedrone—are synonymous with London's growing "chemsex" scene, in which drugs are used—often intravenously—during gay sex parties. It's a phenomenon that has caused spiraling rates of HIV, and prompted David Stuart—substance misuse lead at 56 Dean Street, a drug charity based in London's Soho—to describe GHB and GBL as the "most dangerous drugs on the planet." In 2014, the drugs were involved in 20 overdose deaths in the UK, and the Global Drug Survey found that one in four users had passed out from using the drug in the last year.
GBL is also highly addictive, with some users having to take the drug every three hours, 24 hours a day, to stave off withdrawal. In 2009, a specialist clinic was set up at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust to help people trying to get off the drug, a process almost as dangerous as detoxing from alcohol.
"Being a GBL addict didn't make me feel crazy, it actually made me crazy," says "Bluestreak" on the Urban75s online drug forum. "It was the lack of real sleep for six months at a time. Seeing and hearing things all the time, me talking to people that weren't there, experiencing things that weren't going on. There were times during my addiction that I wouldn't have cared if it had killed me. Two and a half years I lost to that hideous stuff."
Ultimately, GHB and GBL are equally disgusting versions of the old glue-sniffing scenes of the 1980s, and they're just as toxic, addictive, and lethal. That they have the power to knock people out after being slipped in a drink also make them useful tools for sexual predators and psychopaths—two demographics that should really have the fewest tools made available to them as humanly possible.
It took the death of a young woman for the government to ban GBL in 2009, but four almost identical deaths of gay men over a 15-month period in the exact same area of London for police to sit up and take notice. What that says about the authorities' attitudes towards various social groups is a topic for another article entirely. However, what's very clear is that more could be done—and that more needs to be done—to raise awareness around the dangers of these drugs, because there's far more to them than a quick burst of euphoria and a chemically-enhanced libido.
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