The drug is set to become class B in the UK, but increased criminalisation won’t reduce drug use, nor do anything to address the causes of harm
Time and time again, the government refuses to acknowledge systemic issues – whether that’s individualising violence against women by making misogyny a crime, or responding to accusations of police brutality with more police powers. And today is no exception. Instead of addressing the root causes of several high-profile rape cases, the government has decided to reclassify GHB as a class B drug.
Home secretary Priti Patel announced that she would tighten restrictions around GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid) and related substances after the drug was used in crimes by two serial rapists. The reclassification of GHB from class C to B will mean that those in possession of the drug could face up to five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.
“GHB and related substances have been used to commit some truly sickening crimes, including murder, sexual assault, and robbery,” Patel said. “These changes will make the drugs harder to access, and (will) introduce tougher penalties for possession.”
Except, GHB won’t be harder to access – not for those who use it recreationally, nor those who want to use it for harm. And the move certainly won’t stop sexual violence and murder.
“Given the lack of evidence that reclassification will make any difference to the availability or use of GHB, this seems to be a pointless distraction from taking actions that actually make a difference,” says Alex Stevens, a criminal justice professor at the University of Kent.
“We know from past drug reclassifications that they have very little effect on use. For example, there was no change in the trend in cannabis use either when it was moved up from class B to C in 2004, nor when it was moved back up to class B in 2009. Trends in drug use and harm are driven more by availability, price, purity, and the social setting in which they are used than what class they are in.”
Adam Winstock, a professor and the director of the Global Drug Survey, says the reclassification is “sadly predictable”. He tells Dazed: “People won’t decide not to use GHB now because it’s moved from C to B – they’ll just be less likely to seek help or advice. And for those who are caught, it may add another burden to their life. A criminal record is not helpful to anyone seeking to bring their life under control.”
“People won’t decide not to use GHB now because it’s moved from C to B – they’ll just be less likely to seek help or advice” – Adam Winstock, Global Drug Survey
He continues: “Drug laws tend to compound marginalisation and discrimination often in communities already suffering from these. Drug laws should aim to reduce the public health and individual burden of use, not add to it. They also tend to exacerbate social inequality and disadvantages related to race. In their current form, they don’t do what they say on the tin.”
Also known as liquid ecstasy, GHB acts as a sedative, and is often used in the gay chemsex scene because of its inhibition-lowering qualities and the fact that it can make sex more intense.
Imani Robinson, the communications strategist at Release, says the reclassification of the drug will “further stigmatise and discriminate against those associated with GHB, in this case LGBTQ+ people who engage in chemsex. This is not progress”.
Priti Patel is not your friend. Heightened policing will do nothing to make gay men safer or stamp out the violence of the men who use it to harm. Bottom line, if someone overdoses on G this will make people less likely to call an ambulance https://t.co/0zJWKZz4D2— Sean Bernard (@seanbgoneill) March 30, 2021
She adds that the move won’t “prevent sexual or acquisitive crime”, despite the government seemingly blaming GHB for instances of this. The decision follows the imprisonment of serial rapists Reynhard Sinaga and Stephen Port, who both used GHB to drug and rape victims – Port also murdered four men.
“Once again, Priti Patel is prioritising ideology over evidence, punishment over support,” Robinson continues. “The government should focus on supporting harm reduction initiatives led by those most at risk of both sexualised violence and drug-related harm.”
In order to address the broader crisis of drug-related deaths, Stevens says the government needs to “invest in drug treatment, especially opioid-substitution treatment, as most of the deaths involve heroin.” He continues: “The government could also invest in harm reduction services, like drug checking at festivals and town centres, and supervised injecting facilities. Far from funding them, the government is actively blocking people from setting such services up.”
Look back at Dazed’s feature about how drug use will change in the 2020s here.