Banning GHB at Raves Is Dangerous

I slipped out of a stall in the dimly lit basement bathroom of a Brooklyn soul food restaurant, sliding a frosted glass dropper bottle and chubby three-milliliter pink syringe into my friend’s hand as she quickly replaced me. My mouth burned, a sore beginning to develop on the side of my tongue. I had just squirted a dose of “G”—likely a combination of GHB and its more potent precursor, GBL—into my mouth without the usual water or 7-Up chaser.

GHB and GBL are central nervous system depressants, like alcohol, and produce an alcohol-like intoxication. GHB is a chemical that occurs naturally in the human brain, while GBL is an industrial chemical that can be manually or metabolically converted into GHB. In the US, GHB tends to be more common, while GBL is bigger in Europe. G, as both chemicals are colloquially known, is usually dissolved in water, sold as a clear liquid and consumed orally.

I wasn’t able to sip it slowly like I usually do. Neither was my friend. That’s because we were at a popular New York City queer rave in mid-January called Unter, which has a harsh anti-G policy. A sign with a big slashed “GHB” was taped by the coat check, commanding partygoers to “KEEP GHB+GBL OUT!” and claiming that “GHB IS ACTIVELY HARMING THE GREATER DANCE MUSIC COMMUNITIES.”

Data on G-related harms among New Yorkers is scarce. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was not able to comment by the time of publication. But in London, fatal G overdoses and G-involved sexual assaults have been shown to be widespread. More than a quarter of mostly-British gay men reported that they knew someone who has died from a G overdose, and the same proportion said that they had been subjected to sexual assault while using G, found BuzzFeed News UK.

Wanting to prevent G-related harms is admirable. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s what Unter’s policy is doing.

I rushed my dose in an unlit stall because I wanted to stay at the party. Trans girls like myself and my friend get in for free, and the music is good. I didn’t want to face the punitive consequence the sign promised: “POSSESSION OR USE OF GHB+GBL @ UNTER WILL RESULT IN BEING BANNED.” The last word was extra-big, just in case we didn’t get the message.

My friend stepped out of the stall with a big grin on her face. “How much did you do?” I asked, curious. In the past, I had measured her dose for her.

“Um, two milliters I think,” she said. “I’m not quite sure.”

When using G, knowing your exact dose is key to having a good time. Half a milliliter too much often seems to be the difference between a warm fuzzy feeling, akin to alcohol or molly, and the deathly slow breathing of an overdose.

Thirty minutes later, when the G hit, my friend began to feel nauseous. “I think I need to sit down.”

In times past, I shared tips and tricks for safer G use with my friend: First shake the dropper, since G tends to otherwise settle at the bottom, making final doses extra-potent; draw up an exact amount—probably, for my friend at least, one or 1.5 milliliters; only re-dose after two hours, with half the amount of the previous dose; never mix with alcohol or ketamine.

Maybe some of that information slipped her mind. After all, we just wanted to get in and out of that bathroom undetected.

Thirty minutes later, when the G hit, my friend began to feel nauseous. “I think I need to sit down,” she told me.

She eventually vomited in the trash can on the side of the dance floor. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed. I went to get her water. They were only selling it; nothing was free.

The nausea luckily ended up being the full extent of the excessive dosing’s harm—but it could have ended much worse.

The Harms Posed by G Bans

It’s unclear how many people—if any—have been barred from Unter and its new sister party, Large Marge, as a result of the events’ anti-G policy. But in my experience, the policy doesn’t stop use.

Instead, it inspires the fear of being humiliated and kicked out, driving riskier rushed use of a drug that requires precise dosing. Because my friend and I were anxious about being caught, we dosed separately, not consulting one another through the stall door out of concern that someone would overhear us. We didn’t even think to text about it because we just wanted to get the dosing over with.

The policy could also impact how people respond when something does go wrong.

“Under a banned-for-life threat, you are less likely to call an ambulance for your friend or to alert the security team. We see that people try to hide the situation and deal with it themselves in what can be cases of life or death,” Inês Macedo and Mariana Cunha of Kosmicare, a Portugese harm reduction organization, told Filter. “If we look at the case-reports on GBL/GHB deaths, we see that almost all happened when mixing G with other drugs or while sleeping-it-out, both very common responses to avoid tipping off the organizers for the use of GHB.”

“The dominant attitude of rave organizers regarding GBL/GHB use is of prohibitionism.”

The policy does not seem to be having its intended effect. Anecdotally, other attendees are still using the sedative. At Large Marge, held on January 18, one raver chatted openly with me about how he and his friends were currently “G-ing out.” So were my friends.

The same seems to go for other parties and contexts. “If I like G and I go to a sauna, I will find a way,” London-based chemsex harm reductionist Ignacio Labayen De Inza told me of establishments with strict “No G” policies. “Two or three years ago they would check, but you could see people passing out.”

Seva Granik, the organizer of Unter and Large Marge, declined Filter‘s request for comment for this story. But the origin of Unter’s policy seems rooted in legacy queer rave culture.

“In Berlin GHB is a fucking nono and they kick you out if you get caught with it or caught overdosing,” wrote one Reddit user in 2018.

“I had heard that a few years ago someone had died right in the club from mixing G and alcohol. It seems they assume people with G either can’t use it sensibly and will fuck themselves up or they will use it nefariously and spike somebody’s drink with it (which happens occasionally I think),” posted a different Reddit user about Berghain, the world’s most famous techno club.

The legendary club has allegedly responded to club-goers intoxicated on G with violence, a Medium writer claimed in 2018.

Anti-GHB sentiment has been alive and well for some time in Western Europe. A 2009 London party warned, “keep GHB & GBL out of our clubs.” A 2010 Berlin event commanded, “DO NOT GIVE GHB !! take care of yourself, your friends and others,” according to Google Translate. Another Berlin party stated in 2017, “NO G.H.B.”

“The dominant attitude of rave organizers regarding GBL/GHB use is of prohibitionism, and Portugal is following this general tendency,” said Macedo and Kunha. “In Lisbon, one of the most well-known clubs has specific materials advising against G usage since 2018, and other gay/queer bars, saunas and venues are also adopting a zero-tolerance policy. Ravers describe harsh practices from staff in situations involving GBL/GHB, with a visible stigma and marginalization of its users, even in private settings.”

Unter’s GHB/GBL policy seemed to first be introduced in October 2018 during a party featuring two Berghain residents. It reads: “Anyone seen in possession, using, or aiding in use of GBL or GHB, a potentially deadly chemical, will be swiftly escorted out, and henceforth barred for life from all future Unter events.”

Exceptionalism and Distortion

Unter’s policy makes no mention of any other substance. And it seems that such policies, by exceptionalizing G, distort perceptions of its harms.

In 2006, GHB/GBL was considered by the UK parliament to be far less dangerous than most other common party drugs, including cocaine, alcohol, ketamine, benzos, amphetamine, cannabis and LSD. GHB received the second lowest ranking of physical harm—including chronic and acute harms—in a study commissioned by the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, for which doctors, psychiatrists and epidemiologists assessed the physical harms, dependence and social harms of 20 drugs.

And while GHB/GBL is singled out, other drugs linked with deaths in Berlin clubs are left unmentioned in their policies. In just one night at Berghain, three people reportedly died from pills sold as ecstasy, two sources claimed in 2019. In 2017, a US-American tourist was confirmed to have died at the club after taking another such pill.

The lower number of bans in the US could be due to the relative lack of media coverage here.

The scale of G bans at raves in the US seems far smaller than in Europe. But New York’s Unter and Large Marge are not the only examples. One 2018 party in San Francisco announced: “ZERO TOLERANCE FOR GHB / SECURITY WILL BE CHECKING FOR IT.” In 2017, a Los Angeles party informed potential partiers: “We are sick of calling ambulances, so we’ll be searching for GHB at the door” and “If we have to remove you from the event for using GHB, you, and everyone in your crew, will be blacklisted from all future events. Handle your shit,” according to a Vice report.

The lower number of bans in the US could be due to the relative lack of media coverage here, in contrast to the major smears and demonizations peddled by British media. In the UK, G has garnered a killer public reputation following its use by multiple serial rapists and murderers as a “date rape” drug.

Labayen De Inza understands why businesses would have such prohibitive policies. “When it’s G, the tolerance is less because if someone dies on my premise, I can lose my license. I don’t think it’s about punishment, and more about protecting themselves.”

Macedo and Cunha also assume this rationale, but still staunchly oppose it. “We are aware of the negative impact that GBL/GHB use has on clubs such as heavy fines and even the risk of being shut down, but we do not believe in prohibitionist attitude as a viable solution,” they said. “We believe that advocating drug prohibition makes club owners and party-organizers feel better as [they] think they are ‘doing something’ about the situation, dismissing them from any responsibility on deaths or other serious consequences.”

Extending Harm Reduction to G

Some space is being made for harm reduction in queer nightlife. On January 20 in Lisbon, Kosmicare, in collaboration with two queer rave collectives, “mina” and “suspension,” facilitated a pre-party discussion about G, described by suspension as “a drug that is causing stir among the communities of queer ravers due to its easily overdosed nature of consumptions—often mentioned as “collapse”—knit-tight with sex practices and yet shrouded in myths and confusion.”

We would like rave organizers to address GHB use under harm reduction principles eventually in collaboration with specialized teams, working together in convenient campaigns that take into account recent literature, scientific evidence, good practice principles and users’ reports on their experiences,” said Macedo and Cunha.

They recommend that party organizers “communicate potential harm, risks and pleasures in a clear, direct and non-moral way.” Key communications could address what to do if someone overdoses and advise users to “avoid mixing G with alcohol, as this greatly increases the risk of going under/overdosing,” they said. Distributing dosing syringes and providing drug-checking services would also be helpful.

Some parties and clubs are combining harm reduction and prohibition-leaning messaging. In New York City, queer party collective Discakes promoted G harm reduction in anticipation of their New Year’s Eve party. They posted DanceSafe educational materials on Instagram about dosing, timing and first aid.

But they also added the caption, “Due to safety concerns about over doses, we don’t recommend ghb usage at our New Year’s Eve party”—the only prohibitory warning given for any drug, and not included with the harm reduction education they posted about meth and cocaine.

Even in European clubs with G bans, some have reportedly set aside rooms for party-goers who have “gone under,” or overdosed on G. “If someone isn’t fully aware or consciousness, and I work in a club, they tend to have a medical room and they keep them there. And when he’s feeling better they tell him to go,” said Labayen De Inza. For him, this is a step in the right direction; he believes, “People who use drugs always find a way.”

“The most important thing is information. It’s not just about how this drug works. It’s about how people work.”

Labayen De Inza has seen the dark side of bans. “Many years ago, around [2009], I heard that they put a man in the street and he died. At that point there was little information.” Cases like that form the basis for the practices and education that he thinks party organizers should adopt.

“The most important thing is information,” he emphasized. “It’s not just about how this drug works. It’s about how people work. Not everyone’s going to be nice. Sometimes they have agendas. You have to take responsibility for your safety.”

In January GCN, an independent Irish LGBTQ publication, published a helpful safer use guide.

Luke Howard, a DJ who once worked at London Friend’s Antidote, an LGBTQ addiction resource program, agrees with the harm reduction sentiment. “It’s concerning for me to hear these anecdotal stories about G overdoses in New York or Berlin, because I feel if people don’t know what advice to give or how to treat people then we will see more deaths and more clubs close down,” he told Vice in 2017. “But what needs to happen is a positive response. We shouldn’t marginalize or stigmatize people. Turning them into ‘unwanted people’ doesn’t solve the problem.”


Photograph of the line outside of Berghain by Michael Mayer via Flickr/Creative Commons

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