Study highlights GHB, the “silent” sex drug killing gay men

The largest-ever survey of the users of the drug GHB in the UK has revealed for the first time the human cost of what’s been termed a “silent killer”.

Channel 4 Dispatches, BuzzFeed News and Terrence Higgins Trust conducted the study to investigate the impact of GHB (or G), which is killing hundreds of gay men per year and receives little attention.

G is often used during sex to reduce inhibitions and enhance sexual pleasure. It is also known as a ‘date rape’ drug because it can cause users, who may have their drinks unknowingly spiked, to pass out, making them vulnerable to sexual abuse and rape.

GHB is perhaps the most lethal drug available because a small amount over and above a certain mark can have instant, lethal impact. Professionals say G use is a public health emergency, with daily overdose admissions across the UK.

Two-thirds of the 2,700 G gay men who responded to the survey, said they’d had serious problems with the drug, such as addiction, overdosing or sexual assault.

• Half of the G users in survey reported that they had passed out
• 93% of them said they knew other people who had done so as well
• Over one-quarter of users reporting being sexually assaulted
• Four-fifths of those men said they knew someone else who’d also been assaulted on G
• Almost half have overdosed

In the survey, most respondents were unaware snoring could be a critical warning sign that someone is slipping into a lethal coma, with only one-fifth saying they’d intervene if someone was snoring heavily.

More than one in four of the G users surveyed said they knew of someone who had died as a result of using this drug.

Two hospitals in London monitor illegal drug use as part of an EU drug report. In the most recent available figures, G was responsible for more admissions than cocaine, heroin, cannabis or m-cat. Yet G use is still not officially monitored by the major UK drug surveys.

“The one thing that’s really distinct though, about GHB, is the small difference between the amount a user takes to get the desired effect and the amount that causes an overdose,” said Dr Owen Boden-Jones, founder of the Club Drug Clinic in London, the first in the country to develop a way of treating G addiction.

“There are some national statistics and those national statistics show that over the last decade, the number of people who die with GHB detected in their system, is around 20 per year. Now; that is probably a very large underestimate and the reason for that is when there’s a death, there’s not always the toxicology done to detect to see if GHB is there.”

When it was suggested to Andrew Harris, Senior Coroner, London Inner South that the death rate from GHB could be similar to the death rate from knife crime he responded: “Yes, I accept that. I think this a wider matter for government and for the public. This needs looking at. I mean, certainly I wasn’t aware how big an issue or that—what the under-reporting or alleged under-reporting was a big issue.”

The drug will come under the spotlight in a documentary, Dispatches: Sex, Drugs and Murder, on the UK’s Channel 4 on Sunday 8 September 2019.

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