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Fears over availability of ‘date rape’ drugs online

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: World History Archive/Alamy</span>
Photograph: World History Archive/Alamy

Large quantities of the sedative GHB – enough for multiple harmful doses – can be bought online for as little as £10, the Observer has found.

The use of Rohypnol and GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric) in high-profile cases of date rape has fuelled calls for restrictions around the substances to be tightened.

GBL (gamma-butyrolactone), which is a prodrug – an inactive compound that is converted inside the body into an active drug – of GHB, was relatively straightforward to source through online vendors, many of which are based in the European Union. One Dutch site offered 250 millilitres (almost half a pint) of GBL for €50 (£42). Another sold GBL in bulk 4-litre orders for €280. 

Purchasing GHB in its more traditional powder form was not so easy. Under UK law the drug is classified as a class C substance and while it is occasionally prescribed to treat narcolepsy, it has fewer industrial uses than GBL, a common paint thinner or “wheel cleaner”.

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However, it can be bought online through darknet vendors, with the smallest quantity – 10ml, or 3-4 doses – widely available for £10-£12, depending on the fluctuating price of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies are often used for darknet trades as they are secure but elude the detection of traditional payment processors.

GBL is both cheaper and easier to purchase than GHB but black market sales of the latter remain buoyant, in part owing the misconception that GBL is more dangerous because it is a solvent. “People think because it’s a wheel cleaner it must be worse than the powder form” said Guy Jones, a drug-testing expert.

GHB and related substances are set to be reclassified as class B, bringing them in line with amphetamines or cannabis, possession of which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

However, experts caution that reclassification would not necessarily reduce the drug’s prevalence, price or availability, while criminalising those who purchase GHB to use in consensual sex, many of whom are LGBTQ+.

Jones said: “Further criminalising GHB would be an example of what we call the balloon effect: you squeeze down on the balloon in one place, it pops up in another place.”

Patriic Gayle of the Gay Men’s Health Collective said: “Criminalising people who use drugs is a blunt tool to address drug use, making harm reduction even more challenging for all of us. This move will most likely drive drug use further underground, compounding stigmas and inevitably leading to further harm and deaths, particularly among gay men.”

Professor David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist and former adviser to the Ministry of Defence, health department and the Home Office, warned that further controlling date rape-drugs such as GHB would not represent a panacea when it comes to addressing drug-assisted sexual violence.

“Sadly, sexual assault with so-called date-rape drugs are well-known. Alcohol is the most common, of course, but we know of many cases where GHB has been ‘spiked’ on top of people’s drinks,” he said.

“Policy response will always need to consider a range of different factors. And while the control of substances like drugs or alcohol is one aspect to consider, people’s safety won’t be ensured through one decision alone.”

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