A new television special from BuzzFeed and U.K.’s Channel 4 investigates the epidemic of a particularly deadly drug wreaking havoc on the lives of users, many of whom are gay men who consume it for recreational sex. But the special, which relies on anonymous accounts, may contribute to stigma by sensationalizing a complex issue.
The extreme danger of gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, also known as GHB or just G, has been known for decades, but research and education into stopping its use remains lacking. The popularity of the drug may be attributable to the intense feeling of euphoria that it produces, but in many cases, that high comes right before death -- with a fatal overdose occurring once every 12 days in London alone, according to Imperial College London.
BuzzFeed, which had an unspecified role in the production of the Channel 4 special, boasts that “now, for the first time, the scale of G’s harm can be revealed.”
That’s overselling it a bit: The primary sources are on-camera interviews with queer men and a collection of interviews from the University of Cambridge, covering several thousand gay men who have used G. The sample is not representative of the general population, nor can the accounts be factually verified, as they are self-reported.
But the stories shared by respondents are stark and horrifying: tales of unconscious rape victims, slow deaths, young people taken advantage of by dealers, and dead bodies ignored at parties for days. Nearly every person producers spoke to knew someone who had been raped while using G. What’s more, bodies are not usually tested for the drug after death, so its role in sudden fatalities is hard to estimate.
In addition, it’s growing in popularity among heterosexual users.
But all of those data points come with a caveat: They are provided by people who self-selected to participate in research about the drug, and in interviews for what is — in the end — an edutainment program. What’s more, the special focuses on the U.K. and may not match experiences in other parts of the world.
For example, BuzzFeed’s coverage claims, “There has never been a mass public health campaign about this drug.” While that may be true in the U.K., the first hit on a search for “GHB education campaign” yields an article about an educational initiative at the University of Michigan dating back to 1999.
What’s more, sensationalized reporting on real issues can set a false public perception of the scope of the problem, stigmatizing those affected and creating a moral panic that fails to effectively combat whatever real crisis exists.
To be clear, the use of GHB is a tremendous problem. Quantitative research conducted by scientists indicates that the drug causes long-term cognitive problems, ranging from elevated stress and anxiety to memory issues. A 2006 study by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. indicated that “GHB is viewed unfavorably in many social circles,” but frequent users overlook the potentially fatal side-effects due to perceived benefits like increased libido.
And crucially, a study published earlier this year suggests methods for reducing use. Three British clinics were able to measure a reduction in the use of GHB and other drugs after providing high-quality outreach and support to users, as well as opportunities to self-report and reflect on risky behavior.
But far more research is still needed for experts to understand the extent of use and how it can be most effectively combatted. For now, those concerned about their health or that of a loved one can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline in the United States or the organization FRANK in the U.K.