GHB is a common party drug used to induce euphoria or relaxation and reduce inhibitions. GHB is known to be unpredictable and can cause an overdose in small amounts which saw its’ popularity wane. Recently GHB use has seen a resurgence, particularly among young people at music festivals and raves, a subculture of gay or bisexual men who engage in chemsex parties, and methamphetamine users as a sleep aid. It has also been used by bodybuilders to enter ‘slow-wave sleep’ in which growth hormones are secreted.
Appearance and use
GHB is an odorless, oily liquid with a slightly salty taste, usually sold in small bottles or capsules. It can also come in powder form, but this is less common.
According to the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, one in every one thousand (0.1 per cent) Australians (aged 14 and over) reported having used GHB in the past 12 months.
GHB is relatively cheap in Australia (approximately $2.50 per millilitre) and easy to obtain, contributing to its popularity with high school and university students. People in Melbourne’s nightclubs can spend about $15 to buy GHB in the fish-shaped soy sauce bottles usually found in sushi restaurants.
Effects of GHB
Short term effects
relaxation and sense of calm
increased social ability
enhancement of sexual arousal
loss of body control – effects similar to alcohol which can last for several hours
Long term effects
Long-term use of GHB can lead to increased tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effects. This increases the risk of overdose as users take larger doses to chase the desired feeling.
Overdose of GHB can be fatal. Compared to other drugs, GHB has a minuscule difference between a dose that delivers the desired high and one that kills. Just the right amount could fill you with euphoria, but half a millilitre too much and you can be unconscious within minutes.
Tolerance to GHB can develop quickly, meaning more of the drug is needed to get the same effect. GHB leaves the system quickly, it might be undetectable in your system by medics if you go under. So many GHB overdoses go undetected for this reason. Roughly 95 per cent of GHB is metabolised in the liver, and its half-life ranges from 30–60 minutes. Only 5 per cent of the parent drug is excreted via the kidneys. Detection of GHB in the urine may be difficult after 24 hours due to its short half-life. This can make the effects of overdose more difficult to treat.
A potential effect of GHB is the suppression of the body’s natural gag reflex this means that if something is blocking your airway whilst you’re unconscious, your body won’t reflexively cough to emit the foreign object that’s stopping you breathing. This is why GHB is considered a high risk for hospitalisation, coma or death. Users can enter a state known as ‘G-sleep’, where they appear to be asleep but cannot be woken up. In fact, they are unconscious and are at a very real risk of choking on vomit, amongst other things.
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 systems shutting down.
Is it safe to mix GHB with other drugs?
Risks of using GHB greatly increase when used in combination with other substances like alcohol, ketamine and prescription tablets. GHB reduces your body’s ability to flush out toxins. As a result, alcohol or other drugs become concentrated in your liver and kidneys which can cause you to vomit, stop breathing and lose consciousness — a lethal combination.
Legal and social risks
GHB is an illegal substance. If you are caught with GHB you could be arrested or charged with a criminal offence.
GHB is easy to disguise in a drink and can be used by sexual predators to incapacitate an unsuspecting victim. Even people who have knowingly taken GHB may be at greater risk of assault as the drug can cause confusion, inability to stand, muscle contractions, disinhibition or deep sleep. People who have been unknowingly dosed with GHB may blackout and find themselves unable to remember what has happened.
Withdrawal from GHB can kill. The onset can begin 1–2 hours after the last dose and can progress rapidly. Withdrawal can last for up to 12 days. Many users reported that the tapering down of intake helped them reduce dependency on GHB and minimise withdrawal.