The drug was believed to be GHB or gamma-hydroxybutyrate. This is certainly not a new drug and has been causing significant problems on the Australian dance/nightclub scene for over 20 years. The media rarely deals with drug stories particularly well, but this one they keep getting wrong and, as a result, there is a great deal of misinformation out there about the substance, what it is, how it is used and its harms.
Some of the statements made in the media last weekend included the following:
- GHB is a new drug
- the overdoses were due to a 'bad batch' of GHB
- the overdoses were caused by a 'derivative' of GHB - GBL
- GHB is also known as 'fantasy', 'liquid E', 'liquid ecstasy' or 'coma in a bottle'
- it is a odourless, tasteless and clear liquid that is undetectable
- GHB is a 'date-rape' drug often used in drink spiking
Some of these statements are just wrong (as already stated, GHB is certainly not a new drug), while others have some basis in truth. As with any drug issue, there is no 'black and white', instead there are lots of 'shades of grey' ... So, let's try and clear things up a little ...
Without a doubt, this drug singlehandedly changed the face of the dance/nightclub scene not only in Australia but around the world. Prior to G (how the drug is often referred to by users) being introduced to the scene, it was rare to ever see ambulances being called to nightclubs or dance events. Drug-related fatalities were extremely rare and although many people became unwell after using drugs at a dance festival or nightclub, for the most part, on-site medical staff could usually look after them without too many problems. That all changed when this liquid drug (the only drug bought and used in that form) started to be used by those on the dance scene. Suddenly people were passing out on dancefloors, their respiratory systems seemingly shutting down. If they were breathing it was only barely and then, to make matters worse, some of them would start to fit and convulse. We had no idea what was happening and some paramedics who arrived on the scene administered Narcan, believing they were seeing a heroin overdose. I remember working at one event in the late 90s where the medical team called almost 30 ambulances across a 3-hour period, often with the ambulance transporting 2 patients at a time!
GHB is a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter, as well as an illegal drug. GHB molecules exist in all of us and they are involved in the everyday functioning of the brain. One of the great problems with identifying if someone has died as a result of GHB is that the coroner has a difficult time in determining whether the GHB they find in the body was there to begin with or the person used the drug. It was first synthesized in the early 1960s and has been used in the treatment of schizophrenia, as an anaesthetic and even an aid to childbirth. For many years it could be bought over-the-counter in some parts of Europe and by prescription in others.
When the drug first came onto the Australian scene back in the 90s (the first 'mass overdose' was outside a Gold Coast nightclub in 1996), users were actually using true GHB. This usually came in the form of a salty clear liquid but after the Gold Coast incident, governments across the country quickly made the drug illegal and we started to see another substance substituted - GBL or gamma butyrolactone. In fact, from what information we do have on the G available on the street, much of it is GBL and has been for some time.
Gamma butyrolactone (GBL), often used in products such as paint thinner, varnish and woodstripping products is mixed with other more easily obtainable substances to make GHB. However, if GBL is taken into the body on its own, it metabolises into GHB, creating the same effects as GHB (although it can take a little longer to take effect, often leading to users thinking they haven't taken enough and then taking more and subsequently overdosing). It is an important solvent used in industry and, although it carries the same legal consequences as GHB if caught with it, it is easier to obtain (usually by contract burglaries or diversion from particular industries) and is also far more likely to be imported into the country illegally (there were 33 GHB detections by Customs in 2014-15, 133 GBL in the same time period). Although GHB is definitely preferred by users, it is more likely to be GBL they are being sold (why would dealers bother 'converting' the GBL if they don't need to?) ...
GHB/GBL is a powerful depressant and is highly 'dose-dependent', i.e., the difference between a 'pleasurable' effect and finding yourself in hospital on life-support is minimal. Take too much (and we are talking a usual dose for an adult man being around 2-2.5mls) and the user loses consciousness and their respiratory system may start to shut down. Why so many people overdose on it is because the 'high' they get from this drug is intense and when that feeling starts to subside (usually after about 40 to 90 mins), not surprisingly, they want to feel like that again. Mistakenly believing that the drug has worn off, they take another dose, not realising that they still have a reasonable amount in their system and subsequently overdose. It is rare (although not impossible) for users to overdose on their first dose (most tend to be young women who know little about the drug, who take a similar dose to the males they are with). Typically you see ambulances called to events when G users start to take their second and third doses (doses are usually spaced at least 2 hours apart) and this explains the 'waves' of overdoses that are usually reported.
When GHB first appeared on the scene, it was thought that using it with alcohol appeared to be the major cause of fatal overdose. When mixed with other drugs that slow the central nervous system, including alcohol and sleeping pills, the depressant effects of GHB are increased. This continues to be an issue and is the greatest concern of paramedics and emergency department workers who have to deal with this issue.
There are, however, a number of issues with GHB being used in drink spiking. Firstly, it is a particularly dangerous drug to drop into someone's alcoholic drink or if the potential victim has been drinking. As appears to have been the case with the woman on the cruise, the mix can be lethal. Remember, this drug is highly dose-dependent. The spiker would have to be extremely careful with the dose they used and also have a general awareness of how much alcohol has already been consumed. But more importantly, as already discussed, anyone who has ever taken G knows that it is hardly tasteless and odourless – at the very least it is salty, at worst, extremely chemical tasting. This is hardly a drug you would not notice, unless you were pretty intoxicated. Could it be used in drink spiking? Absolutely! Is it likely to be used by perpetrators of this crime? Highly doubtful ...
- it is relatively cheap - nowhere as cheap as it once was (it was once $1 per ml!), but certainly in terms of 'bang for the buck', users see the cost as well worth it
- the quality is consistent - G really came into its own during a period when the quality of ecstasy was at an all time low. MDMA was difficult to find and people started to call ecstasy 'pills' - you didn't know what you were getting. G would always provide the required effect
- users believe that it is not one of the drugs that can be detected by drug detection dogs - little information is publicly available on what substances the dogs are trained to detect but ecstasy/MDMA and amphetamines are regularly found