The United Kingdom is moving forward with its plan to impose harsher punishments on people who use GHB—a chemical naturally found in the brain and popular within queer, chemsex and dance communities—in response to a moral panic around sexual violence among gay men.
On March 30, the Home Office, which oversees national criminal justice affairs, announced that GHB will be reclassified from a Class C substance to Class B—making people found to be in possession vulnerable to up to five years in prison, rather than two. Supply and production punishments remain unchanged. Additionally, the department will advocate for legislation that creates a licensing system for the industrial use of GBL and BDO, two GHB precursors. All three chemicals are often referred to collectively as “G.”
The crackdown appears to be a response to a moral panic stoked by media outlets, like Buzzfeed UK, over a so-called “chemsex crimewave.” On January 6, 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel called on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to investigate whether G ought to be reclassified. She cited something that had happened earlier that day: A man named Reynard Sinaga had been sentenced to 30 years-to-life for serially raping queer men, many of whom are believed to have been unconsensually dosed with G. Patel also justified her request by citing Stephen Port and Gerald Motovu, two men who had committed murders facilitated by G.
Patel claims she’s trying to keep people safe. “I will do everything in my power to protect people from harm, which is why I am tightening restrictions around these dangerous substances,” she said in a statement making the announcement. “These changes will make the drugs harder to access and introduce tougher penalties for possession.”
Patel did not explain how the classic drug-war policies—harsher punishments and supply restrictions—will help stop rape. As the vast body of academic research on drug markets has demonstrated, supply-side crackdowns just makes conditions riskier for consumers who tend, invariably, to find what they’re looking for; this is otherwise known as the Iron Law of Prohibition.
More than two decades before Patel’s crackdown, a rape crisis counselor in the United States had known the punitive approach was misguided. “We must deal with the act and not deal with the vehicle specifically that is being used,” Denise Snyder of the DC Rape Crisis Center told US Congressmembers in March 1998. The lawmakers were consideringd legislation, eventually enacted, to criminalize what a moral panic had branded as a “date-rape drug” due, in part, to misinformation about the deaths of two teenage girls. Snyder continued: “if we focus on specific drugs, I am afraid that what we are going to do is two years down the road find ourselves in the same place that we are in now.”
Patel’s approach will also likely disproportionately impact queer people. In the ACMD’s November 2020 report recommending the enhanced punishment, an unspecified number of advisors opposed the reclassification, in part on the grounds that there will be “unintended impacts of reclassification on those using these compounds—particularly those from the LGBT community and those using these compounds in the Chemsex context specifically.” They added that “These already vulnerable groups could be disproportionately impacted by any changes to the criminal justice system.”
London-based harm reductionist Ignacio Labayen de Inza, director of the organization Controlling Chemsex, is worried about the harm the policy change will have on people in the chemsex community.
“I felt very sad: Do they really believe that everyone who has G at home is a rapist?” he wrote to Filter. “Can’t they see that if the police arrives to a house where there is G, it can be [there] for many different reasons, including someone suffering from GHB dependency, and he needs that drug to function otherwise he will suffer from terrible withdrawal symptoms? So that person, who is already going through lots of difficulties … now he is going to be under more pressure?”
Instead of the harsher penalties for drugs, de Inza says that there needs to be more information and support for people who have been sexually assaulted or are struggling with their chemsex participation. He also believes that the “punishment has to be for the rapist.”
In a March 30 letter to the ACMD chair, Patel acknowledged that their report had made recommendations regarding “improved data, toxicology, prevention, treatment, and training of staff in health and social care.” She stated that Home Office “officials are in discussion with other government departments and agencies to develop a detailed response to these recommendations and I will reply further in due course.”
Photograph of GHB containers by Filter