This is Part 1 of a BuzzFeed News investigation.
All it takes is a few drops.
Slipped into a drink with a distinctive flavour — Coca-Cola, perhaps, or Lucozade — and the taste vanishes. Just the right amount could flood you with euphoria and disinhibition, heightening sexual arousal, like alcohol drowned in ecstasy. But half a millilitre too much and you can be unconscious within minutes.
If you are lucky, you will keep breathing.
This is the drug known as G, the street name for two almost identical illegal substances: GHB and GBL (which becomes GHB in the body). G is most often used in so-called chemsex situations, where two or more men use it alongside crystal meth and other drugs to enhance sex. It has been taken recreationally since the 1990s, but its routine use as a weapon by murderers and rapists has, like a spiked drink, gone largely unchecked — and its damage overall has been largely undocumented.
Now, for the first time, the scale of G’s harm can be revealed.
An eight-month investigation by BuzzFeed News and Channel 4 Dispatches — for a new documentary called Dispatches: Sex, Drugs and Murder — exposes such widespread levels of G abuse among gay men that many users are calling it an “epidemic” with an array of harmful consequences: addiction, violence, sexual violence, overdose, death, and suicide.
All of this is being facilitated by a loophole in the law through which dealers, organised criminals, and those who wish to rape, kill, and in some cases, profit from sexual violence are able to obtain industrial quantities of the substances from abroad.
The investigation includes the largest-ever survey into G use among gay and bisexual men, conducted in association with the Terrence Higgins Trust and the University of Cambridge. More than 5,000 people responded, of whom over 2,700 were gay and bisexual men who have taken G. Nearly two-thirds (62.5%) said they had suffered serious problems from the drug, including loss of consciousness, addiction, hospitalisation, and sexual assault.
From the survey and investigation, which includes 133 Freedom of Information requests, BuzzFeed News and Dispatches can reveal:
- Sexual violence facilitated by G is so widespread that almost everyone who had taken it said they knew someone who had been raped or sexually assaulted while on it.
- Over a quarter had been assaulted themselves.
- Young men are being drugged with G and raped, with the abuse filmed and livestreamed over the dark web.
- Overdose is so common as to be normalised, or even seen as a “rite of passage”.
- One London hospital saw G overdoses almost every day — over 300 in one year.
- Deaths from G are being missed because it is not routinely tested for after a sudden death.
- G use among heterosexuals is rising.
To back up the data from the anonymous online survey, BuzzFeed News and Dispatches also conducted more than 140 face-to-face interviews with gay and bisexual men who take G. The interviewees conveyed similar stories, to similar degrees, at similar rates.
The picture that emerged was almost unfathomable in its darkness. The volume of those being victimised is beyond what police and the medical profession could contain.
This is helped by the chemical nature of the drug itself, what doctors and toxicologists describe as the unusually steep “dose response curve” — the minuscule difference between a dose that delivers a desired high and one that kills.
A more lethal phenomenon, evident throughout the investigation, also stops help from arriving: silence. Stigma surrounding sex, sexual violence, drug use, and homosexuality — all exacerbated by the drugs’ illegality — means users and bereaved loved ones often keep quiet. Information that might be shared is being muzzled. Life-saving harm reduction is being thwarted.
In one key area, experts warned, this relates to addiction. Users can quickly fall into physical dependence, but many are unaware that withdrawal itself can kill. Heroin withdrawal, by contrast, is not lethal.
But just one NHS clinic for the whole of the UK is trying to cope with those needing medically supervised G detox: a distinct protocol using a combination of medication developed over the last decade to prevent the seizures that can kill people weaning off it.
Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, the psychiatrist who set up the clinic and who was interviewed for the documentary, revealed that a significant number of the G addicts they treat have been subjected to trauma, usually violent or sexual, with many also experiencing a lifetime of homophobia that undermines the most fundamental of instincts: self-preservation. “GHB is a very effective way of taking away feelings,” he said.
Users frequently overdose. Although the 133 Freedom of Information requests submitted by BuzzFeed News and Dispatches to NHS trusts across England and Wales found that most hospitals do not test specifically for G in overdose patients, four do.
In the year to November 2018, those four hospitals (Blackpool, Portsmouth, King's College Hospital and Guy's and St. Thomas') saw 700 admissions from G. If those figures were representative across the country, this could mean 17,000 G admissions nationwide annually. London’s St Thomas’ Hospital alone treated over 300 people for G in one year. Sarah Finlay, an accident and emergency doctor at St Mary’s, another London hospital (which does not test for the drug), revealed that her department alone saw “two or three” G overdose victims every week.
But many users do not even make it to hospital, and the BuzzFeed News–Dispatches investigation uncovered the reasons why. Those who overdose often start snoring, a sign frequently misinterpreted by those around them that they are “sleeping it off,” when in fact it can be a sign of the respiratory system shutting down.
There has never been a mass public health campaign about this drug.
G is also not part of the routine toxicology testing used after a sudden death to ascertain which drug was responsible. The result, we discovered, is that no one — pathologists, coroners, the NHS, the Department of Health, drugs charities, or LGBT organisations — knows the total, or even a near-approximate number, of overdoses and deaths.
Over a quarter (27%) of gay or bisexual male G users who took the survey said they know someone who has died from the drug. Yet official records show as few as 20 G deaths per year — a figure Dr Bowden-Jones described as a “very large underestimate”.
One final warning sounds: G users, addicts, and the professionals who help them revealed that G is proliferating far beyond gay men at chemsex parties. Heterosexuals, in particular young women, students, and people at music festivals, are buying it too. Such burgeoning popularity among the young heterosexual population is believed to be in part because of its cost — as little as £2.50 for a night out.
“I’ve seen it in a multitude of settings, people from a multitude of careers,” said Sophie, a young female user featured in the documentary who asked to be anonymised. “It’s a social problem.”
The survey also included an open question for respondents to describe freely their experiences with G.
More than 800 gay and bisexual men told their story, many from the UK but also from across the globe, with clusters in metropolitan centres: New York City to LA, Berlin to Sydney, Rome to Bangkok. Of those who indicated, their ages ranged from teenagers to sixty-somethings.
Although anonymous, each respondent will be called a different name to differentiate between them and to document what many have never told anyone, in the hope that they may at last be heard.
“I woke up the next morning completely naked and with bruises.”
An irony hangs over people’s experiences of this drug.
The most common reason respondents stated for taking G was to have better sex. Roughly two-thirds cited this motivation. Yet over a quarter (28%) had been sexually assaulted — touched without their consent, awoken with someone inside them, or raped while still conscious. And 82% said they knew someone else who had been the victim of sexual violence while on G.
A third of those who had been assaulted were under 25, and, perhaps surprisingly, the most common setting was not in private homes (just 23%) but in saunas — 37% of which were in such places where other people were wandering around.
Dovetailing this was G overdose, either accidentally or because they had been spiked. Almost half — 47% — knew or suspected they had been given G without their knowledge, let alone consent. And almost a fifth — 18% — reported being given a deliberate overdose. In real numbers, this meant 491 men said they had been maliciously put unconscious. A further 21% said they knew or suspected that they had witnessed someone else being deliberately overdosed.
Given these proportions, the following accounts only begin to unmask the overall picture of sexual violence surrounding this drug. Some accounts are straightforward — they remember, roughly, what happened. Others may never know.
“When I was 21,” said Joe, “myself and a friend had met two guys on a night out who invited us back to their place. We were asked to try G, which we did. I remember saying I felt sick and then when I tried to stand, I just fell to the floor. I was vomiting and trying to get to the door to get some air when I felt myself get picked up and taken upstairs. I woke up completely naked on the floor in the small bedroom and I could tell that I had been abused while I had been passed out. I never reported it as I felt shame for how stupid I had been to let myself get in that situation.”
Self-blame permeates many of the experiences revealed in the survey. They took the drug, or put themselves in a situation where drugs and sex were involved, and so point the finger inwards.
Many described too what happened without using the words “rape” or “sexual assault”, an indication of the extent to which men — and perhaps gay men in particular — do not attach such crimes to their experiences. “I took G voluntarily once at a chemsex party and went under,” wrote James. “I woke to find I was being anally penetrated.”
Many were very young when it happened.
“I was given G by my dealer when I was 18,” said Andrew. “It was my first time trying it and I was totally out of it. I met up with a much older man on the tube and I was clearly under the influence … Last thing I remember is the man I met taking me to his house and I collapsed in his living room unconscious. I woke up the next morning completely naked and with bruises all over my legs and buttocks. He said I wanted rough sex and that’s what happened.”
Several men reported contracting STIs during these attacks. “I was raped on G and deliberately infected with HIV,” said Owain. This was how another man, Dylan, became HIV-positive. But there was one other detail he mentioned. “Not only was I raped, I was also — I gather — fisted.”
To witness sexual violence was also traumatising for several who responded to the survey. “The flashbacks I have of being on G is horrifying,” said Matt. “The things I’ve seen people do to fresh university students is deplorable. I’ve seen rape.”
In part, the traumatising effect of this was to see the reactions of bystanders, who either did not help, or worse, colluded.
William described a man unconscious on G at a chemsex party. “He was completely still apart from his feet moving around quite fast, it made me think of when someone is hanged,” he said. “I arrived in the room just as this was happening.”
By “this”, he was referring not only to the overdose but that another man was still inside the unconscious guy. “From what I was told the top had coerced the bottom guy into taking an extremely high dose of G because he wanted him to be totally out of it.” Another partygoer’s idea of helping him, said William, was to give him “mouth to mouth” — that is “blowing T smoke [crystal meth] into his lungs.”
Adam said his drink was spiked in a heterosexual bar and revealed his fear for G more widely among the straight population.
“I suddenly felt incredibly drunk; couldn’t stand up straight, was slurring my words, felt dizzy and nauseous. I then wandered off to the bathroom to try to splash water on my face,” he said. By chance, he stumbled into the women’s bathroom and collapsed in a cubicle. “Had my presence as a man in the women’s room not raised the appropriate concerns, I wouldn’t have been noticed by security. As I was forced to learn, this affects both men and women, at straight and gay bars alike.”
Although not sexually assaulted on that occasion, the risk, wherever G is present, is stark, according to the respondents.
“It’s such a dangerous thing in the hands of people who wish to do harm,” said Simon, who described being deliberately overdosed and raped, as well as accidentally overdosing on other occasions until he suffered convulsions and lost control of his bladder. “It is so hard to take the correct dosage, and the small amount that will take you from feeling good to ‘G-ing out’ [losing consciousness] is too difficult to measure.”
Given this, it is no surprise how many never wake up.
“People say it’s like being drunk. It’s not. It’s like being dead, but still walking.”
More than a quarter of the G users who took the survey knew someone who had died from the drug. Many had lost several loved ones to G, so the overall number of deaths reported in the survey was 1,910.
But because there could be overlaps, with respondents knowing the same deceased people, there is no way of knowing what the total number of deaths is among those the survey participants knew. And there are many barriers to discovering the number of G fatalities overall, BuzzFeed News and Dispatches discovered.
Because most hospitals don’t test specifically for G and the majority of people overdose without seeking medical help, doctors can’t estimate what proportion of overdoses become fatal. After a death, G is not routinely included in toxicology screens in Britain. Even Inner South London, which covers Vauxhall, one of the epicentres of the chemsex scene, doesn’t include it. Instead, pathologists will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to test for it, but this relies on them making assumptions about the deceased when they may not know much about chemsex or those who partake in it.
Once a coroner has found a single cause of death, there is no legal requirement to look any further. But one study found that 90% of G deaths involved other drugs — chemsex usually involves combining G with other substances — so if another drug shows up in the toxicology screen, G will not be recorded.
Finally, because the official statistics on G deaths are incomplete, the existing data suggest the problem is less significant, providing little incentive for policymakers to make the test routine.
But while the true death toll remains unknown, the devastation caused by G reverberated through the responses to the survey.
“I used G for about a year when partying at the weekends, and of the contacts I made during that year alone, eight have died from overdoses,” said Miles.
“I know of somebody who was dead on the sofa at a sex party,” said Huw. “The party went on for more than a day and nobody bothered to check on him. He’d been dead for two days after a G overdose ... People say it’s like being drunk. It’s not. It’s like being dead, but still walking.”
Bruce said he used to work on the club scene. “Personally, I know at least 10 people that have died from it and add another 10–15 suspected to have died from it,” he said.
“It’s like a roulette wheel of death,” said Francis. “We need to get the message out how dangerous this stuff is.”
Others lost their partners. Dan said friends of his former partner took him back to his hotel room, but they didn’t know what he had taken. “As he slept, he aspirated and went into cardiac arrest,” Dan said.
The survey also revealed how inaction, ignorance, and fear on the part of other people in chemsex settings may be contributing to the death rate. More than a quarter said they wouldn’t intervene if someone was unconscious or having a seizure (28% and 29%, respectively). Only 18% of those who had passed out on G went to hospital. And more than a fifth (21%) said they wouldn’t intervene if someone was snoring heavily, which can indicate the respiratory system is failing.
At parties, when someone “goes under” — also called “G-ing out” — people are afraid of phoning the ambulance. “I have witnessed arguments [about] whether or not to call an ambulance [for] a poor guy who accidentally took an overdose, because the assumption was that everyone present would be arrested,” said Moses.
People also shared their own near-death experiences.
“I almost died a few times myself, once on a train in Slough [in England],” said John. “My mum received a call to say the paramedics were unable to resuscitate me and I was pretty much dead. But thankfully they kept working on me and I managed to regain consciousness. Mentally, I have never been the same since.”
Aiden was admitted to hospital with a G overdose “despite having written down the amount of each dose and the time it was taken” — his attempts, common among users, to avoid taking too much. “When I eventually woke up in A&E I could at first remember nothing about the night before. My memory started coming back slowly, bit by bit. I was expecting my long-term partner to arrive at the hospital. A little later I was shocked to the core when I suddenly realised that that was not going to happen.”
The G overdose had wiped from Aiden’s memory the fact that his partner had died a year earlier.
Fear of the effect that details of a G death could have on family members inhibits discussion about what is happening.
“Friends and lovers [have] died from it,” said Clint. “I know truths about deaths that immediate families don’t know and I am riddled with guilt about this. But I fear that letting them know the truth will taint their views about the deceased.”
Silence pervades while isolation keeps fuelling the habit, a theme running through many of the accounts. Not only current loneliness — a factor in urban life generally — but also as a response to past disconnection: gay men shut out at an early age, bullied or sidelined at school or by their family, unable to express who they were. The closet’s long shadow.
“It was a guy I used to date called Victor,” said Bob. “He had recently lost his job in a new city he’d moved to, and started another, but was struggling to find friends. I saw him posting pictures on Facebook and I was concerned as he was with people I knew were heavy drug users on the scene.”
Victor died from his first time on G, said Bob. “He went for a lie-down because he was feeling unwell and other partiers found him blue a few hours later. I think that loneliness drove Victor to that place and was a huge factor in his death. He was only 21 and I miss him so much.”
Many spoke of how entering the gay scene, and in particular the chemsex scene, they found there was a drug that dispensed with barriers between people, discarding awkwardness or shyness or low self-esteem.
“I hid in the closet until I was 38,” said Anthony. “G provided the feeling of being able to be myself, without any concern about what others thought. It makes you feel attractive, confident, uninhibited, and enhances sex beyond what any human should experience. Thus, it is extremely active, tragic, and deadly in the gay community. I lost everything.”
Many spoke of the benefits of G, in particular compared to alcohol: how cheap it is, how easily available it is (“can be delivered across London faster than pizza”); the fact it is calorie free; the lack of hangover; the ability it grants users to shake off inhibitions, approach men they would otherwise be too shy to, and enjoy sex. The sheer bacchanalia of it.
But G is also described again and again by the survey respondents in haunting, dreamlike terms. “Nightmare.” “Ghoul.” “Ghost.” Men like “zombies”. Walking dead. Seizures. Vomiting. Fitting. Sleeping. Dying. Memories vanishing into blurred darkness. Details atomising. How someone died. Whether they died from G or something else. Who was responsible. All become cloud, a will-o’-the-wisp from a best-forgotten weekend that still taunts them.
Even murder becomes blurred. Did the man who gave their friend too much do it to kill them? Does their intention matter when the fact is they are dead? Are those who did not intervene also culpable?
“A previous Grindr hookup of mine ... was involved in the death of another guy and G was at the centre of it all,” said Gary. It is not clear whether “involved” means murder, manslaughter, or accident. Either way, “the whole mind-fuck of me knowing both the drug and this guy really shook me and since then I haven’t touched anything other than poppers.”
Others lost loved ones to suicide.
“My friend, a gay man, took an intentional overdose of G in 2011,” said Derek. “He was found unconscious in the street, admitted to ICU, but was brain dead. He was kept on life support for a while as he donated his organs. He was 25 years old.”
The stories of other fatalities are too numerous to include: a man who had to tell the parents of one of his friends that their son had died of a G overdose. A man in Bangkok who knew of six deaths during one gay circuit party, none of whom received medical help “because the doctor will inform police after testing your blood”. Another who lost eight friends across London, Cape Town, and Johannesburg.
The details overlap, time and again. The regular postings on Facebook — friends of friends, RIP messages for men in their twenties, thirties, and forties. Everyone knowing but not saying what killed them. They detailed various associated crimes too — being robbed while unconscious (“I was spiked; I have some recollection of being taken to a cash machine”), being attacked by boyfriends who have never before been violent — and they describe the depths to which G addiction has plunged them.
“It’s destroying a generation of gay men’s lives.”
Robert is recovering from G addiction. He described why its grip is so tight on the user. “Because the effects wear off so rapidly, the anxiety produced by a dopamine rebound encourages one to take another dose in order to suppress that anxiety,” he said. “People end up adopting a 24/7 dosing scheme.”
Now clean, he added, “I’m so glad I no longer have to find an excuse to have a drink every hour on the hour so that the G withdrawal doesn’t start kicking in.”
Terrence, meanwhile, helped his partner detox from G. “For the first week he couldn’t sleep, would shake, sweat, awful anxiety and depression which lasted at least eight weeks. He had trouble controlling his bowel movements and on a few occasions soiled himself.”
Terrence said he left Brighton to escape the drug scene poisoning gay life there. “G in particular is at epidemic levels,” he said. And it isn’t just in major cities. “It has started to surface in rural areas too. I know three people that have lost their lives to this drug; two from overdoses, one from suicide as a result of an uncontrollable addiction. There was one point last year when every day I was logging into Facebook and friends of friends were sharing pictures and condolences of young victims of this drug.”
The tornado effect of G addiction, flattening everything in the user’s life, was captured by multiple respondents. Craig, 23, charted how it brought him into sex work. “I started really doing GHB at 21, and from then it went on to ruin a lot for me, it makes you lose all inhibitions and changes your personality to an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude. It ruined my relationship of four years as well as escalated to me losing my job from going out on benders 3–4 days long. I got myself into a lot of debt through loan sites.”
Broke, single, and unemployed, Craig became an escort. “I then used GHB in order to escort.” He’s now finally two months clean. “GHB,” he said, “is a very underestimated drug.”
What Mike went on to describe was the “normalisation of G with gay men”, which proves devastating when combined with “no information on how to use G safely”. He called for more research into the drug to ascertain what harm-reduction methods might be possible.
But multiple respondents to the survey described the many ways that users and addicts are aware of risks and trying to mediate them. Mostly by measuring the dose and timing further doses, at one- or two-hour intervals, often using their phone’s alarm clock. One man said he used a system of colour-coded balloons to track what he taken, others talked about using Alexa, Amazon’s voice service: “Alexa, remind me in one hour that it’s G o’clock.”
This does not always work, said respondents: Someone forgets they have taken a dose or accidentally puts two doses in someone’s drink or picks up the wrong drink. “I’ve witnessed entire sex parties go under almost simultaneously,” said Javier, adding, “[the] central London gay chemsex scene is an epidemic and it’s destroying a generation of gay men’s lives.”
Three groups of respondents emerged in the survey: first, those who had delved into the chemsex scene and taken G and those who had not. The former often described the G problem like an apocalypse or nuclear fallout: danger everywhere, acid rain pouring over the LGBT community. The latter had not encountered G or its problems and rejected this depiction. Then there was the third camp: those who had dipped their toes into the G world, had a good time and great sex. Some of these users reacted angrily to questions about its harm, accusing the survey, or the media, of stigmatising or overhyping the problems.
These three perspectives reflect what is the likely reality: Most gay men do not take G. Some take it occasionally and manage it. Others are drowning in G with others drowning too. Such groups do not always overlap much, heavy users mixing only with other heavy users.
But the answers to the survey were not only revealing in their substance but in their numbers. When BuzzFeed News and Dispatches released the survey with one question enabling people to say whatever they liked about G, the expectation was that hardly anyone would bother filling it in.
The replies, some comprising hundreds of words, were enough to fill a book. The outpouring included many desperate to speak out, wanting something to be done, wanting to warn others, terrified about what had happened to them, their loved ones, and what could happen to many more people if this drug is not contained.
One respondent we’ll call Wesley summarised the situation, warning: “GHB has become more than escapism. It’s a ticking time bomb that’s started to blow.”
First illustration by Zoë van Dijk.