The “Date-Rape Drug” Narrative Has Been Weaponised Against GHB Users

Photograph of GHB containers by Filter

"Wait…” my therapist reacted during our weekly FaceTime session. I had just mentioned my nightly routine of throwing back a seltzer flavored by my drug of choice, GHB. Stuck inside more than ever before, my roommates have instead opted for weed or beer, as we all try to relax after being cooped up all day with the world around us indelibly transformed.

“You’re taking the date-rape drug?” she questioned, brows arching into concern. I shut down. I haven’t talked about my drug use in the one space designed to hold space for me since that session in early August.

My therapist’s association of GHB, a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter that functions as a central nervous depressant in sufficient doses, with sexual violence is no individual idiosyncrasy. It’s part of a decades-long moral panic engineered and perpetuated at the expense of people like me.

The criminalization and persistent stigmatization of GHB and its precursor GBL originate in alarmist claims made by law enforcement, politicians and journalists in the 1990s that the drugs were widely being used to facilitate sexual assaults against young heterosexual cisgender women—despite a paucity of evidence.

GHB could be purchased in health food stores for its claimed muscle-building, sleep-aiding, and sex-enhancing qualities until a November 1990 ban on its over-the-counter sales. On the tail end of the decade, it was officially criminalized in 2000 with President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act. 

The bill’s name itself highlights the shamelessness of the misinformation campaign. Neither Hillory Farias of Texas nor Samantha Reid of Michigan experienced sexual assault at the time of their deaths. And there’s evidence to suggest that Farias did not die as a result of GHB—nor even ingested it in the first place.

People who voluntarily use GHB seemed to have been an afterthought to the successful campaign for criminalization.

Rhetorical sleight of hand seems to have made the distorted framing, and in effect criminalization, possible. When Farias died in August 1996, journalists immediately branded GHB with the label of “date-rape drug”—a term popularized by the media earlier that year to describe the benzodiazepene flunitrazepam, aka Rohypnol or “roofies,” as it appeared in a handful of sexual assault cases, mostly out of Florida. Yet there was no indication that anyone had intended or attempted to assault Farias.

Less than six months after her death, federal law enforcement raised doubts about GHB as the cause. Despite this, GHB became equated with sexual violence—an accomplishment seemingly unparalleled in the history of drug scares. “Even the most fervent antidrug forces,” wrote sociologist Pamela Donovan in her 2016 book, Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History, “never [elsewhere] managed to shift any illicit drug’s core social identity by naming it along the lines of its worst outcome, either real or in the social imaginary.”

A Congress member representing Farias’s home region in Texas appropriated her death to champion a bill that supposedly aimed to protect America’s youth from a two-for-one boogie monster: sexual predators equipped with drugs. 

People who voluntarily use GHB seemed to have been an afterthought to the successful campaign for criminalization.

 

The Hillory Farias Case

 

In the late 1990s, politicians fought to criminalize GHB. Various bills debated in Congress between 1997 and 1999, with titles ranging from the Date Rape Prevention Act to the Violence Against Women Act, identified GHB, just like the media, as a “date-rape drug.” The battle concluded with the signing of the 2000 legislation. 

The legislative campaigns found their primary thrust from the death of Hillory Farias, a 17-year-old high schooler depicted by the media as a drug-free star athlete victimized by a GHB-spiked soda. 

On the evening of August 3, 1996 Farias went to a club with friends. She was reportedly not drinking alcohol, but began “feeling sick and having a severe headache,” according to a September 10 Houston Chronicle article. She never lost consciousness while out and apparently shared one of her two sodas with a friend. 

When she returned home, she was able to speak with her grandmother—who didn’t notice any signs of intoxication—and to prepare herself for bed. Such behavior is inconsistent with the effects of a fatally large dose of GHB.

When Farias went to sleep, she never woke up. The Harris County medical examiner had a working diagnosis of “sudden death due to an accidental hemorrhage in the brain,” not even thinking to test for GHB. But after August 12, local law enforcement made the office aware of “unconfirmed reports of as many as eight people with similar symptoms” at an area hospital, “although all of them recovered,” according to the Houston Chronicle. Law enforcement believed that someone had slipped GHB into her soda, despite no hard evidence.

The local medical examiner’s team ran a specialized test and found GHB, but at a concentration that was “low, by our forensic standards,” as Dr. Joye Carter, the chief medical examiner, said in her 1998 Congressional testimony. In the weeks following Farias’s death, it was described as just “traces of the drug” by the Houston Chronicle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified her plasma concentration to have been 27 milligrams of GHB per liter—a quantity considered within the range of endogenous GHB, or that which is naturally produced by the body. It’s also far less than doses typically ingested by both medical patients and recreational users—between about 2,000 and 8,000 milligrams, according to Donovan.

The doubts over Farias’s cause of death were completely absent from the ensuing political discourse.

In Carter’s testimony, she implied that the low concentration was attributable to GHB’s fast half-life, which would eliminate the ingested substance from the blood after about four hours. Yet her logic seems questionable: The examiners hadn’t even thought to test for GHB until more than a week after Farias’s death. Adding to the shakiness of the examiner’s findings, levels of GHB naturally produced by the body actually increase after death—a tendency that examiners are warned against using to misidentify a cause of death. 

The Harris County examiner did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.

Less than six months after her passing, the Farias family was informed by a local police officer working her case that a test by the Drug Enforcement Administration had found “the amount of GHB detected in Hillory’s system” to be “not sufficient to have caused her death,” a family spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle. At that point, additional testing had never in fact been completed; rather, a DEA agent investigating GHB-involved deaths had told the cop that “compared to all the other cases throughout the country, the GHB is low compared to what he’s seen,” a DEA spokesperson said in a follow-up news article.

A current DEA spokesperson told Filter they were unable to comment on the matter because the agency “does not make such determinations” of cause of death nor does it “track specific crimes that are or potentially are drug related.”

The doubts over Farias’s cause of death were completely absent from the ensuing political discourse pushing for GHB’s criminalization.

 

Date-Rape Branding Ramps Up Panic

 

The national GHB panic spread despite a near-total lack of supporting evidence.

When Congress held a hearing on “date-rape drugs” and the legislation to criminalize GHB in March 1999, the DEA was “aware” of 13 sexual assault cases that included 22 victims believed to be intoxicated with GHB since 1996. 

Between 1993 and 1998, the United States only saw two trials of alleged drug-facilitated rape, according to a report presented to the Department of Justice in 1998. That report noted that, at the time of its publication, there existed “no empirical and scientifically reliable data” to quantify the frequency of drug-facilitated sexual violence.

A year later, a study aimed to fill that void, examining the prevalence of drugs in alleged sexual assault cases between May 1996 and June 1998—a time-frame that aligns with the boom in the GHB date-rape narrative. Alcohol was by far the most common drug, present in 40 percent of the 1,179 cases, followed by cannabis (18 percent), benzodiazepines (8 percent) and cocaine (8 percent). Like amphetamines, GHB was found in only 4 percent of cases. Even this number may be an overestimate, a 2005 study warns, noting that the 1998 researchers failed to establish a cut-off quantity limit to distinguish between ingested and naturally-occurring GHB.

Yet the researchers still called for more GHB-specific scrutiny among forensic labs, urging that more attention “be given to other lesser known drugs such as GHB that should be included in the battery of tests used in sexual assault cases,” despite the rarity they found. They also noted that the presence of multiple drugs was common, and that “no one drug was associated with sexual assault, rather many drugs appear to be associated with this crime.”

“It takes the rationale to the next level: GHB is not just a party drug, it’s a weapon to drug women.”

So why was GHB—and not alcohol, the clear outlier—being singled out by politicians and the media as the date-rape drug of the ‘90s? 

Historian Phillip Jenkins traced in his 1998 book, Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs, how the transformation of GHB’s social identity from a rave drug to a rape drug functioned to re-entrench justification for the war on drug users that was beginning to attract criticism. Jenkins declined to comment for this story since he hasn’t studied the issue in over two decades.

Per his history, the “club drug” label “simply did not sound scary enough for draconian prohibition” of the growing prevalence of synthetic drugs, as Donovan summarized Jenkins’ argument in her 2016 book.

“It was moving drug harm to the next level. You may be telling us that maybe we shouldn’t be treating this as a criminal justice issue. Well we are now regarding this as a weapon,” Donovan explained to Filter. “It takes the rationale to the next level: GHB is not just a party drug, it’s a weapon to drug women.”

 

Harm Reduction Erased

 

The date-rape narrative displaced the reality of who was being most impacted by GHB-related harms and the tangible ways that such harms could be prevented or reduced. 

Around the time of Farias’s death and the date-rape narrative boom, a startling number of GHB-involved overdoses were also being reported. Over the course of a single weekend in San Francisco in July 1996, emergency rooms in the city saw at least six people suffering from intoxication, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article. Seven passed out at a Chicago nightclub on one evening that month, the Chicago Tribune reported. In that year alone, emergency departments across the country saw a total of 638 GHB-related emergencies. Farias’s death had been considered the first suspected GHB-related death. 

“At that time in San Francisco, it was definitely gay. That’s where it was centered and that’s where I think it came from.”

Back then, GHB’s popularity among mostly white, gay men was occasionally recognized by independent media, but their experience was marginalized by the emphasis on teen girls. In an interview by Jeff Stark of SF Weekly, one GHB enthusiast in the Bay Area in 1995 described his peers as “gay, ‘go-for-broke’ bodybuilders, hard-core partiers—who use the drug as a surrogate for the phenethylamine Ecstasy (MDMA), a stand-in for speed, and as a pharmacological adjunct in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.”

“At that time in San Francisco, it was definitely gay. That’s where it was centered and that’s where I think it came from,” Stark told Filter.

GHB’s queer popularity was publicly known beyond San Francisco. In August 1996, an attendee at a Fire Island fundraiser for Gay Men’s Health Crisis collapsed after allegedly taking GHB, according to the New York Daily News. The overdose led to tensions within the gay community, according to the New York Times, with some calling for the healthcare provider to no longer sponsor the annual Morning Party event. Later that year, in November 1996, the Village Voice ran an article about GHB that discussed its use at gay circuit parties.

Since GHB had begun making headlines  in 1990, federal public health agencies recognized that overdoses tended to involve additional behaviors that elevated the risks associated with GHB use, yet such practical information tended to be buried in media coverage. 

Polydrug use, which greatly raises overdose risks, was extremely common. The CDC found in 1990 that, out of 57 cases of non-fatal “illness attributed to GHB exposure,” 11 out of 12 Georgia patients, four out of five Florida patients, and three out of four California patients had used other drugs with GHB at the time, including central nervous system depressants, like alcohol and benzos. 

According to the CDC, doses from those cases were measured using teaspoons, a unit of measurement that does not lend itself to precise dosing. Researchers Ming-Yan Chin and Richard Kreutzer noted in their 1992 review of the cases that there had been “no accurate method of assessing the amount or quality of GHB consumed, adding that “No doubt the actual size of a reported  ‘-teaspoon’ dose varied widely.”

Both characteristics—“dose of GHB and presence of CNS depressants”—determine the “severity and duration of symptoms,” wrote the CDC. Similarly, Chin and Kreutz further noted that “differences in susceptibility, wide variations in doses taken by the same person, or the coingestion of other substances” factor into the drug’s effect on the body.

GHB product packaging had warnings with information that is now a staple of GHB harm reduction education. According to SF Weekly, the product Somatomax, which had been implicated in overdoses in 1990, stated: “Important: Do not use this product with alcohol or other CNS depressants as it may intensify their effects.”

Instead of amplifying these harm reduction messages, the Food and Drug Administration sought to shut down use and production of the substance. It banned over-the-counter sales of GHB in November 1990. 

GHB users’ experiences—like the role of pleasure—were utterly erased from the public discourse at this time. Yet of the 1990 alarm-bell cases, “all interviewed patients reported a pleasurable sensation or a ‘high’,” Chin and Kreutzer found, adding that “Several of them…continued taking [GHB] because it made them ‘feel good’.”

The date-rape narrative’s political consequences became apparent by January 1997. Capitalizing on the buzz about Farias’s death and reports of GHB-facilitated sexual assaults, Congressional Representative Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the first of many bills attempting to place GHB in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, effectively criminalizing it. By March 1999, when the House of Representatives held a hearing on a new version of her bill, 20 states had controlled the drug and three others had criminalized it without scheduling it.

Rep. Jackson Lee seized on the date-rape framing even when pressed by other Congress members about the issue of recreational GHB use. In response to a question regarding both “the use of GHB and its analogs as a tool to facilitate rape or the use of GHB as the party drug of choice for young people,” Jackson Lee sidestepped the issue of pleasurable use altogether, instead admitting that overdose deaths “will take the lead.” But she added, “as a woman let me tell you that I have experienced or seen victims and heard stories from victims as we did our research, and it is an enormous tragedy on all counts.” 

Jackson-Lee did not respond to Filter’s request for comment.

“The rape statistics are minute compared to what really is going on.”

Even a narcotics officer questioned Jackson Lee’s rhetorical framing. “The rape statistics are minute compared to what really is going on. For every rape victim out there, there are hundreds of overdoses that were caused by voluntary ingestion. There are dozens and dozens of kids deeply, deeply addicted to this drug,” testified Trinka Porrata, then a Los Angeles Police Department officer.

Jackson-Lee’s bill passed less than a year later, and President Bill Clinton signed it on February 18, 2000. His prepared statement underscores who is—and who isn’t—valued by lawmakers.  Describing GHB as “a drug that is abused for its psychoactive effects and, less frequently but more perniciously, used as a tool by sexual predators,” Clinton praised legislators, claiming “Their efforts have strengthened the rights and safety of thousands of women, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for the leadership they have shown in bringing this issue to our Nation’s attention.” 

Queer men and other GHB users were not mentioned. 

 

The Harmful Narrative Persists

 

I wasn’t around for the beginnings of GHB panic; I was born a month after Hillory Farias’s death. Digging into the history of GHB criminalization, it was upsetting to learn how GHB’s largely mythical threat to cisgender women eclipsed attention to preventable harms experienced by voluntary GHB users, many of whom were queer.

But now, the date-rape panic of the 1990s seems to have remade itself, this time taking the queer community as its stage. Institutional recognition of GHB’s use among gay men  seems to have grown since the rise of “chemsex” discourse in Anglo-American public health in the early 2010s.

Fears of GHB as a drug uniquely primed for facilitating sexual assault have been revamped this year by sensationalist news stories about “Britain’s most prolific rapist” weaponizing GHB against unwitting gay men, sparking British law enforcement’s escalated supply-side crackdown against what’s being called a “chemsex crimewave.” 

LGBT Editor Patrick Strudwick of BuzzFeed News UK is one journalist who has stoked alarm around queer GHB use while providing little-to-no harm reduction information. In one 2019 article mostly based on an observation by a law enforcement official, Strudwick wrote that “Gay men are being drugged without their knowledge using GHB put into lubricant in order to rape and sexually assault them,” without ever qualifying the anecdotal nature of that specific purported trend. 

Reported trends around GHB-involved sexual assault in the United Kingdom are indeed alarming. A little over a quarter (28 percent) of GHB-using respondents to a survey led by Strudwick and others reported they had been sexually assaulted, though the article does not specify the circumstances of the assaults.

Instead of transforming the people and conditions that enact the harm, they create harms for people whose GHB use has nothing to do with sexual assault.

But the myopic focus on GHB aligns with a misguided approach that an American survivors advocate warned against more than two decades ago. Her words read as almost prophetic. 

“We must deal with the act and not deal with the vehicle specifically that is being used,”  Denise Snyder of the DC Rape Crisis Center told Congress in March 1998, “because if we focus on specific drugs, I am afraid that what we are going to do is two years down the road find ourselves in the same place that we are in now.”

Rape is a pressing issue, whether drugs are involved or not. But our systems are not designed to actually prevent sexual violence; instead they traumatize people convicted of the crime, putting them on registers that in many places nearly guarantee homelessness and unemployment. 

And the approach to so-called “date-rape drugs” has invariably come to stigmatize people who choose to use—and enjoy using—GHB, like me. Instead of questioning why people sometimes drug others for malicious ends, or exploit others who have voluntarily taken GHB, journalists and politicians locate their responsibility in suppressing a “vehicle.” Instead of transforming the people and conditions that enact the harm, they create harms for people whose GHB use has nothing to do with sexual assault.

 

This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.

Sessi Kuwubara Blanchard is Filter‘s staff writer.