The Observer
Sunday June 29, 2003

'Liquid ecstasy' to be banned as date rapes and deaths soar


Kamal Ahmed, political editor

The date-rape drug GHB is to be made illegal after concern over the soaring number of women attacked after the chemical was slipped into their drinks.

Possession of the drug, gamma hydroxybutyrate, without a medical prescription will be punishable by a prison sentence of up to two years. Supplying the drug will bring a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

The Home Office agreed to reclassify the drug to Class C status after evidence that its use by men in rape attacks was increasing. The colourless, odourless liquid is a powerful anaesthetic which effectively 'knocks out' victims and leaves them with no knowledge of what has happened. Because it is difficult to detect in the blood, prosecutions are difficult.

Clubbers also use the drug, also known as 'liquid ecstasy', to create a 'high'. In small quantities it acts as an anti-depressant but has been linked to a number of deaths. Leading stars, including Nick Nolte, have admitted to taking it.

'It is a very dangerous drug,' said one Home Office official. 'It can be fatal when mixed with alcohol and has been closely linked to two forms of misuse, both by clubbers and in the area of drug-assisted rape. We consider it to be very harmful.'

In a move that will be welcomed by both the police and drug charities, GHB will be illegal from next month. Police will be expected to step up investigations into a growing black market in the drug, which can be made in home-based labs using solvents and caustic soda.

The Government will also announce that a number of anabolic steroids used by body-builders and athletes will be banned. The four steroids in the androstene family, which are already prohibited by the International Olympic Committee, are used to build 'body bulk' and increase stamina.

Three other drugs used in hospitals will also be made illegal outside the medical environment.

GHB, which is also known colloquially as GBH because of the damaging effect it can have on the body, came to public attention in the Nineties, when it first entered the club scene. A close relative, Rohypnol, which has also been connected to date rape, is already banned.

A 1999 survey by Mixmag , the music magazine, found that 3 per cent of clubbers said they had tried GHB. That figure rose to 26 per cent in the 2000 survey. Last year Davina McCall, the Big Brother presenter, led a campaign to dissuade people from taking the drug, which is sold in clubs and sex shops for about £10 a phial.

The first deaths from taking the drug were reported in the mid-Nineties, and last year the Office of National Statistics said four deaths had been directly linked to it. Earlier this year, the rising rock star Lee Pennington, drummer with the band Squeezebox, died aged 21 after taking a mixture of ecstasy and GHB.

Clubbers travelling to Ibiza were warned last year of dealers peddling GHB. Dr Francisco Mueles, head of the casualty department at the Can Misses Hospital on the island, said it was a 'new and dangerous holiday phenomenon'.

'It worries us a lot because we don't understand how the drug works, and much less so when it is taken with other toxic substances like alcohol and cocaine,' he said.

One of the most notorious cases of the use of the drug against women came in a trial in America last year. The heir to the Max Factor fortune, Andrew Luster, was sentenced to 120 years in prison after being found guilty of drugging and raping three students under the influence of GHB.

Luster, who fled from America during the trial and was last week said to have been discovered by a bounty-hunter in Mexico, videotaped himself having sex with the three women. He was seen proclaiming: 'That's exactly what I like in my room: a passed-out beautiful girl.'

In Britain there have been a number of high-profile cases involving the drug. Earlier this year David Meachen of Camarthen in west Wales was sentenced to 10 years in prison after meeting a stranger in a bar and spiking her drink with GHB. He then raped her.

Lea Shakespeare, a serial rapist, was given 10 life sentences after a series of offences between 2000 and 2001 using the drug. Speaking after the trial of Shakespeare, aged 30, at Lincoln Crown Court, Detective Superintendent Russell Wate of Cambridgeshire Police demanded that the drug be made illegal.

In another case a 25-year-old woman said she had pulled out 18 of her own teeth with pliers after hallucinating under the influence of the drug. Samantha Court, from Bolton, was found by paramedics covered in blood with the extracted teeth scattered around her. She said she was addicted to the drug.

Women who have suffered date rape have told of the trauma it creates. Janet Noakes, interviewed by the London Evening Standard last year, said many women never believe it will happen to them. 'It was an evil and diabolical thing for him to have done,' she said after she was raped by a man she had met for a drink. Her drink was spiked and she lost consciousness for a number of hours. It was only on waking that she realised she had been attacked.

Last night the charity DrugScope welcomed the Government's move but said the Home Office should now consider reclassifying other drugs so that they better reflected their danger.

'We would also now like the Government to review the advice that it has already been given on the classification of ecstasy as less harmful than other Class A drugs,' said Frank Warburton, the director of service development at the charity.

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