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Opinion | ‘The reclassification of chemsex drug GHB misses the point’

Head of Living Well at THT Jim Fielder says chemsex must be treated first and foremost as a public health issue, rather than just being further criminalised.

By Jamie Tabberer

Picture: Pexels (posed by model)

A couple of weeks back, I heard a friend had overdosed on GHB and was rushed to hospital, where he had to have his stomach pumped. I texted him: ‘Heard what happened, hope you’re ok?’ He replied saying he was just glad to be alive and ‘valuing life’. By all accounts, his choice of words is apt. This scenario, unfortunately, is all too common in the gay community and countless men have been less fortunate than my friend. Many have failed to wake up after ‘going under’ at the hands of G. 

The Home Office has now announced GHB will be reclassified from Class C to Class B, following its use in a number of high-profile rape and murder cases. Notably, Reynhard Sinaga was found guilty of being Britain’s most prolific rapist, after using the drug to assault more than 40 men at his flat in Manchester.

As shocking and deplorable as Sinaga’s behaviour is, to deal with GHB only as a legal issue is to miss the point. As with all drugs, if the government is to effectively address the issue, they need to implement information and harm reduction strategies and treat the epidemic of GHB use for what it is: a public health issue. 

Gay culture and drug use have always been inextricably linked. The difference today is the strength and addictive potential of the drugs being used. Although GHB is used by both gay and straight people during clubbing, it is also commonly taken by gay men during chemsex, which has taken hold through the community over the last 10 years or so in the UK. Crystal meth is another, often smoked and increasingly injected. G, an odourless and colourless liquid, can be lethal if taken incorrectly. Both induce feelings of euphoria and can make sex seem more intense.

I’ve been working with gay and bisexual men for around six years since my own diagnosis with HIV. Initially, this was as a support worker at charity Positively UK and now as Head of Living Well at Terrence Higgins Trust, where I manage programmes that support the needs of people living with HIV.

Beyond my personal lived experience of taking drugs as a gay man, I’ve seen up close the sometimes messy and often complicated impact of sexualised drug use. Last month, I completed running a six-week course for gay and bisexual men struggling to control their use of crystal meth, G and other drugs. My co-facilitator and I worked with them to explore the costs and consequences to them of engaging in chemsex and helped them to identify the triggers that led them to behaviours they wanted to change, as well as looking at how they could manage their cravings. Having a safe and judgement-free space in which they could share their experiences is the one thing above all else that they said they valued.

The Covid pandemic and lockdown restrictions have provided a good reason for some to stop hooking up for sex over the last year. However, for many the restrictions and wider impacts of the pandemic have created new anxieties, levels of boredom and other stressors that have pushed people to seek out the escape and sense of connection with others that engaging in chemsex provides. Gay men were already meeting less in bars and clubs pre-pandemic. Obviously, right now we don’t meet in them at all.

Instead, many rely on apps where sex and drugs are widely and instantly available, and their use is increasingly normalised. The Covid pandemic and lockdowns have created a worsening epidemic of drug use within the gay community and that further criminalisation, with the re-classification of GHB, serves to create a distraction from interventions that could actually help people to use chemsex drugs more safely, or even not at all.

This need to move gay drug use out of the realm of blaming and shaming that necessarily comes when the legal system is applied, is all the more important for gay and bi men. Some use chemsex drugs not only to heighten the sexual experience, but also to artificially neutralise many of the concerns that they have about themselves. Drugs help bring feelings of sexual confidence to those with low self-image. If people don’t feel they belong, drugs can make them feel connected. If they feel shame or stigma around their sexuality, drugs can allow them to lower inhibitions surrounding gay sex.

Criminalising the use of G does not address the drug’s social context. Re-classifying GHB and related substances might well make some people take the drug and its dangers more seriously. But what must also be recognised is that if some gay men are going to use drugs (which some always will), then they need access to information that helps them understand the risks of doing so and – should they decide to continue to use – how to use safely.

In regards to G, this is about using calibrated pipettes or syringes that allow for dosing the small and safe amounts that can be ingested and ensuring that when people are ‘partying’ or attending a ‘chill-out’ that they – or someone else – is writing down the exact time when the dose is taken to ensure that they leave sufficient time before the next dose. These are simple but extremely important ways to manage the safer use of the drug. Our FridayMonday website provides all of this harm reduction information in one place

Criminalisation does not change behaviour or fix issues related to drug abuse. Those who are struggling and wading into darker waters need to be able to access the right support and information. There’s good support out there, but not enough of it and too many people are falling between the cracks with traditional drug recovery services on the one side that don’t always understand the ‘chemsex’ context in which gay men operate, and sexual health services on the other that may not have the drug treatment expertise.

Addressing these gaps is crucial and one of the core recommendations made by the HIV Commission on what must happen to end new HIV cases in England by 2030.

With the government re-classifying GHB as a class B drug many gay men will feel the familiar refrain that their sexual practices and lifestyles are once again being criminalised. What we want to see is a government that places health and wellbeing at the centre of policies that tackle substance misuse, rather than simply demonising people. 

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