[disinfo ed.’s note: this original essay was first published by disinformation on November 23, 2001.]
Banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 1990, gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), an alleged aphrodisiac and muscle enhancer, continues to wreak havoc.
~~ New York Times (“Love Hurts”)
The popularity of date rape drugs–like the clear, slightly salty-tasting liquid GHB–has prompted bar owners and law enforcement agencies around the state to launch aggressive public awareness campaigns.
~~ Los Angeles Times (Dirmann)
Gamma-hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, is known as a date-rape drug because it is often used on sexual assault victims. It is also gaining popularity as a recreational drug.
~~ Minnesota Daily (Olson)
GHB is so new, experts say, that few are aware of its danger. And at the raves, it’s becoming the rage.
~~ CNN (“Trendy Drug”)
These reports luridly describe GHB as “an alleged aphrodisiac and muscle enhancer” that “continues to wreak havoc,” as a “date-rape drug,” as a “recreational drug,” and as a “new” and popular drug at “raves.” These usually credible news sources deride GHB as a threat to society with little legitimate use. Indeed, a casual survey of media coverage of GHB from 1990 to 2000 indicates that these reports are far from exceptional, with ABC, NBC, the Associated Press, and other major news outlets consistently reinforcing these notions, often with remarkably similar terminology: GHB, designer drug. GHB, date rape drug. GHB, deadly new rave drug.
But despite the media’s consensus, these implications are egregiously false.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s own statistics, GHB has been “linked” to 58 deaths in the last decade. That sounds like a lot until you consider that alcohol is related to over 100,000 annually, or over 1,000,000 since 1990 (“Number of deaths”). According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s own statistics, GHB has been “linked” to over 5,700 recorded hospitalizations since 1990. Again, this sounds like a tremendous number until you put it in perspective: alcohol was responsible for over 10,000,000 hospitalizations in the same period of time (“Number of all”). Further, the notion that GHB is “new” and therefore mysterious is simply laughable; an abundance of scientific studies dating all the way back to the 1960s suggests that the substance has numerous beneficial properties – properties that the media rarely, if ever, mention (Cameron; Dean, pp. 103-105; “GHB”; Marwick). Moreover, recent studies have debunked the myth that GHB is “the date rape drug,” with alcohol responsible for the vast majority of drug-related sexual assault cases and with GHB appearing in a minuscule minority, if at all (Hindmarch; Cole, R.).
Nevertheless, in ten years, GHB went from store shelves alongside vitamin C, aspirin and soy protein, to the federal list of Schedule I Drugs alongside LSD, ecstasy, and heroin. The news reports quoted above exemplify what has become a widespread pattern of panicked reactions to GHB – a nationwide phenomenon caused by fear, misinformation, symbolic politics, and mass media that has resulted in a public response so pervasive, so vehement and so grossly inaccurate that it rises to the threshold of mass hysteria. This hysteria has led to widespread false memories of date rape drugging. This hysteria has led to witch-hunts, with a GHB supplier being tried for murder, two men being convicted of rape without reason, numerous charges of manslaughter for providing GHB, and DEA arrests and seizures throughout the country. And this hysteria has led to legal codification starting from the FDA’s revocation of GHB’s status as a food supplement, continuing with state legislation that criminalized possession of GHB, and ending in federal prohibition.
GHB (an acronym for gamma-hydroxybutyrate) was first synthesized in 1960. Neurobiologists later discovered that GHB actually exists in the brain, acting as a neurotransmitter and affecting the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (an inhibitory neurotransmitter, sold over-the-counter as GABA) and the secretion of growth hormone (though research continues as to the precise role of GHB) (Marwick et al). Because it is naturally created, processed, and metabolized into water and carbon dioxide, GHB is inherently non-toxic to the human. It does not cause damage to the brain, liver, or any major organ, leaving the body safely within 12 hours in the form of water and carbon dioxide (Dean et al, pp. 1-19). (Ironically, this positive property of GHB has been cited by the media and by authorities as a danger, since the substance could conceivably be used by sexual predators without leaving a chemical trail. This problem with falsification has led many to conclude that a lack of evidence is evidence, thus setting the stage for fear unfettered by facts.) Due to the fact that GHB is naturally ocurring and necessary for proper function, some scientists have referred to it as a nutrient. However, due to the psychoactive effects manifest at high dosages (among other less concrete reasons that I explore later), many groups (scientists, media, government, and general public) have referred to it as a drug.
Proper use of GHB by a healthy person is beneficial on multiple levels, resulting in increased alertness, enhanced mood, improved memory, heightened growth hormone secretion, cellular protection and deep sleep without a hangover (Cameron; Dean et al). GHB causes neurons to absorb and retain stimulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine, resulting in relaxation and disinhibition. After the initial effects of GHB have worn off, it produces a “heightened state of awareness and energy,” which contrasts greatly with the aftereffects of alcohol and sleeping pills. At this point, the neurons release the neurotransmitters that they had stored during the initial phase, paradoxically causing the subject to become more alert. When administered orally or intravenously in the amount of 1 gram, GHB can result in “relaxation, decreased anxiety, enhanced sociability,” and mild euphoria for up to 2 hours; this dosage can be used for short-term treatments of anxiety. A dose up to 2 grams increases the degree of relaxation as well as the subsequent heightened stimulation. Because of the net increase in the level of stimulatory neurotransmitters, individuals can use GHB at this dosage for treating depression and enhancing mood. A dose higher than 2 grams induces sleep for about 3 hours; people can take this dose for deep sleep with a clean recovery (Dean, et al; pp. 152-154). This also explains the molecule’s purported reputation for creating an effect similar to alcohol (when used for recreational purposes) without the hangover; however, the ability of GHB to cause sedation or induce sleep has also laid the foundation for the “date rape drug” label.
GHB has numerous well-documented medical uses, including the treatment of insomnia, depression, narcolepsy and cataplexy (Cameron; Dean et al; Scrima et al). GHB has also been used effectively for alcohol and opiate withdrawal, avoiding the known dangers of such alternatives as disulfiram, calciumcyanamide, and methadone (Cameron; Colombo et al; Gallimberti et al; Gessa). In all, over a dozen medical applications of GHB were being evaluated at the time of federal date rape drug legislation, which barred all subsequent research.
Still, despite its numerous benefits, GHB is not “the perfect drug.” Much controversy has surrounded its misuse. Extremely high doses (3 grams and above) will cause a person to pass out or vomit – not unlike alcohol. Unlike overdose situations with other substances, though, the best solution in the case of GHB is often to let the subject recuperate without intervention; except in the most extreme cases of overdose, recovery is quick and complete – again owing to the bodys ability to metabolize GHB. Indeed, fatality through isolated GHB overdose occurs at much higher relative doses than alcohol or even acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol), making it far less “deadly” than these commonly used drugs (Cameron; Dean et al, pp. 154, 120-121, 133; Gunnell et al). In one study taken over a three year period, 88 overdose cases were examined. None of the subjects died, with most of the subjects regaining consciousness within 5 hours (Kaarlela).
A second danger of GHB involves addiction. Contrary to what some proponents have said (Dean et al), GHB can cause physical dependence, albeit in extreme circumstances, and to a lesser degree than alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, methadone and many other substances. Much like other sedatives, chronic and heavy use can lead to a set of withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, tremor, hallucinations, delirium, hypertension, etc. Still, even in these cases, the symptoms disappear in a matter of days or weeks. (Cameron; Dyer et al).
But by far the most dangerous misuse of GHB involves its drug interactions, with the vast majority of GHB-related fatalities involving alcohol or other drugs. According to the Congressional testimony of Stephen Zukin, M.D., for the GHB “Date-Rape Drug” prohibition law, “The DAWN Medical Examiners have reported one GHB-related death in combination with alcohol between 1992-1995, occurring in 1995 in the Midwest. However, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has documented 32 deaths associated with GHB (4 – attributed to GHB alone)” (Statement). Another study noted that the majority of GHB-related emergency room visits involve alcohol and other drugs (Cameron). Nevertheless, according to Elizabeth Todd, PhD, chief of Drug and Environmental Toxicology of Dallas County Institute of Forensic Sciences, overdose cases often take care of themselves, even when alcohol is involved: “One to 6 teaspoons of GHB taken with alcohol will result-within 15 to 30 minutes-in a pronounced coma and substantial respiratory depression possibly necessitating intubation . . . But within 1 to 2 hours, spontaneous recovery often occurs. People have been in deep coma in the emergency room and in the process of intubation will just sit up, spontaneously ‘come right back to life,’ and wonder why they’re there” (quote in Kaarlela).
In contrast to the approach that the government has actually taken, Dr. Todd suggests that the best method to deal with GHB misuse is education: “When it was sold in health food stores, the package included a warning that it should not be taken with alcohol and cautions about the dosing interval. To increase exposure, the advice was to take doses more frequently rather than increasing the individual dose . . . Since GHB has a very short half-life, from 20 minutes to 1 hour, this may have minimized some of the negative impact that we are now seeing” (quote in Kaarlela).
Because GHB occurs naturally in food, as well as in the human body, the FDA initially classified it as a food supplement, leaving researchers free to pursue medical applications of the molecule and consumers free to purchase it at health food stores. The turning point came in 1990, when the FDA became wary of consumers taking it in order to become intoxicated, not just for sleep and body-building (the most commonly marketed uses of GHB at the time). On the basis of several dozen unconfirmed reports of side effects (which included coma and nausea, but not fatality), the FDA released a press report stating that GHB was a threat to public safety with potential for abuse. The media, taking the FDA’s word on it, disseminated reports of GHB’s danger, thus beginning a decade-long trend of anti-GHB press (Dean et al, pp. 19-23).
The fact that the FDA reacted to GHB in this manner is somewhat confusing. GHB was, at this time, distributed nationwide for over-the-counter sale; even so, there were merely “more than 30” alleged incidents of illness related to GHB. “The FDA provided no scientific evidence that GHB was dangerous, nor did it establish the legal basis for GHB’s ‘illegality.’ They also failed to mention anything about GHB’s 30 – 40 year record of safety.” (Dean et al, p. 20). The claim that it had a high potential for abuse apparently stemmed solely from its ability to inebriate – a quality that, of course, alcohol already possessed legally.
There certainly were some dangers associated with GHB like driving a vehicle while under the influence, overdosing or mixing drugs (as alluded to above). However, it seems highly doubtful that GHB comprised a threat to pubic safety that would have warranted its regulation; Europe, after all, has not had such difficulties despite its legal status there. Furthermore, there are far more than 30 poisonings related to vitamins and legal drugs every year: “To put these figures in context, we should note that all drugs can cause adverse reactions, including perfectly legal medications properly prescribed by qualified medical personnel. The scale of such diverse reactions is amazingly high: according to a recent survey, perhaps a hundred thousand Americans die each year from the effects of legal synthetic drugs administered in hospitals, and over two million more suffer non-lethal adverse reactions. Moreover, this survey only tracked adverse reactions in hospital settings and did not include lethal effects that might have occurred at home. The unintentional consequences of legally supplied synthetics amount to perhaps the fourth leading cause of death for Americans” (Jenkins, p. 153).
Notwithstanding the glaring gaps in its argument, the FDA proceeded to reclassify GHB as a drug.
Shortly thereafter, the media reported on a series of deaths that were allegedly related to GHB. The first such major story concerned the death of young actor River Phoenix: “The media suspected a drug connection with the death, and during the first week of coverage, the culprit was identified as GHB. . . The drug’s rumored association with Phoenix’s death survived for years afterwards, although subsequent autopsies showed that GHB had not contributed to the event. The young star had in fact been consuming dangerous quantities of heroin, morphine, and cocaine in hazardous combination with alcohol” (Jenkins, p. 170). Though there was no relationship between GHB and the death, this story served, nonetheless, to put GHB on the national stage in a deadly context.
A second, and far more significant, incident dealt with Hillory Jeanan Farias, a white Texan girl who had purportedly died from a drink laced with GHB. Hillory’s death was tragic; the teenager was a studious girl, and her death raised questions about whether she had been maliciously “slipped” the drug by a would-be rapist. News reports on the subject from Time and the Houston Chronicle, among others, publicized GHB as “a deadly date-rape drug” (quote in Jenkins). Indeed, Hillory’s case garnered such widespread attention that her name made it to the title of the GHB date-rape drug legislation of 2000 (Hillory).
Yet again, however, the media failed to correctly represent the reality of the situation. First, no one even alleged that the girl had been sexually assaulted. Second, Hillory shared the supposedly laced drink with a female friend of hers, who did not experience any ill effects. Most convincingly, actual medical reports have raised questions about whether Hillory had consumed any GHB at all, with her blood lacking abnormally high levels of GHB. Finally, Hillory J. Farias suffered from a congenital heart defect that may have caused her death (Jenkins, p. 171). Nevertheless, the media did not report this information, again slandering GHB without sufficient evidence. In a televised CNN story, Hillory Farias’ “death was depicted as a form of murder, though the report was made several months after the reconsideration of the medical evidence, which had raised doubts about whether GHB was even involved in the incident. This was too powerful a story to spoil with facts” (Jenkins, pp. 172-174).
It would not be the last time that GHB was mistakenly implicated in a death by legal authorities and by the media. “In one 1997 case, police in Georgia’s Douglas County promptly assumed that GHB had caused the sudden death of a sixteen-year-old boy, who subsequently proved to have perished from a congenital birth defect under the influence of neither drugs nor alcohol” (Jenkins, p. 173).
Reports in CNN, Time, 20/20, ABC News, Seventeen, St. Louis Dispatch, Denver Post, The Daily News, The New York Post, Sassy, the Minnesota Daily, and various other sources of information (local and national, entertainment and news) continued to spread allegations of GHB’s role in overdoses, murders, and rapes. Throughout, the media selectively reported facts and effectively misled the American public as to the actual threat posed by GHB. In one episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the host referred to there having been “thousands” of sexual assaults linked to GHB, warning women never to let men hold their drinks at clubs, never to drink from opened containers, and always to bring their own drinks to parties (Jenkins, p. 180). In fact, no figures even remotely close to Oprah’s estimate have ever been reported; even the Drug Enforcement Agency – whose perspective in such matters is not quite impartial – has stated that 20 sexual assaults have been related to GHB in the last ten years, a number that pales in comparison to the number of such crimes associated with alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy, or even marijuana (“GHB”).
Scientific data also confute the “date-rape drug” myth. One recent study states, “The use of drugs in the crime of date or acquaintance rape has resulted in some drugs being known as ‘date rape drugs.’ Examples include flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), and ketamine. This study examined the incidence of drug use in sexual assault in the USA.” The study tested blood samples from victims of sexual assault who believed that they had been drugged. Significantly, no drugs were found in nearly half of the samples (Hindmarch). This, in and of itself, supports the contention that the public reaction to GHB is an instance of mass hysteria; false memories of this sort are classical symptoms (Altman).
Even of the samples where drugs were found, alcohol was far and away the most common, present 37% of the time. Cannabis ranked second, with 18.5% frequency. Only 4.4% showed evidence of GHB. Indeed, another 17 drugs were found, including cocaine and opiates. According to the researchers, “Alcohol is the drug most often associated with sexual assault” (Hindmarch).
And yet, low as it may be, this studys finding of 4.4% may be somewhat exaggerated. At the time of the study, Hoffman-LaRoche, Inc., was lobbying to remove its product, Rohpynol, from the Date Rape Drug bill. The pharmaceutical company funded this study in order to show that Rohpynol is less often used than GHB in assault, and therefore that it should not be added to Schedule I. Not surprisingly, its lobbying efforts were successful: Hoffman-LaRoche’s Rohpynol (“roofies”) was removed from the bill, while GHB medically effective but cheaply and easily manufactured from unpatented common chemicals was not.
An impartial study provides more reliable results: “Alcohol was present in 208 cases (36 percent), marijuana in 93 (17 percent), tranquilizers in 49 (8 percent) and cocaine in 40 (7 percent).” Once again, researchers did not find any drugs in 40% of the samples; moreover, GHB was not discovered at all. One researcher said, “From what we are seeing now, it does not seem that any one drug is responsible” (Cole, R.). Furthermore, recent surveys of GHB-related hospitalizations indicate that 79% of patients were male, suggesting that the media’s focus on women is disproportionate to the real incidence of GHB-related illness, and probably also to the rate of use (Cameron).
Catherine Dougherty suspects that suggestion is a factor in the 40% false-alarm rate. Dougherty is a registered nurse and qualified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner who works with rape victims in Monmouth County, N.J., according to Associated Press writer Richard Cole. He quotes Nurse Dougherty as saying, “A lot of my colleagues who suspected the use of date rape drugs have sent out samples, and I don’t know any who have gotten positive hits. Dougherty beleives that women may have been influenced by press coverage of date rape drugs. “They’ve really plastered headlines around that make women a little bit frightened” (Cole, R.).
Spurred on by innumerable news reports that habitually referred to GHB as the date rape drug, college newspapers began saying that GHB was quickly becoming the most dangerous drug on the street (Cole, A.). Through e-mail networks, students began spreading news of the dangers of GHB, the date rape drug. Feminist groups and rape prevention centers began disseminating fliers and other such awareness-raising techniques warning people of GHB, the date rape drug. The National Institute on Drug Abuse wrote, GHB has been associated with sexual assault in cities throughout the country, with the institute spending an estimated $50 million on public awareness campaigns on GHB and other so-called designer drugs (Rohypnol;Club Drugs). These parties probably had sincere concerns for the public welfare, but were acting largely on the basis of fear, ignoring the relative incidence and exaggerating the actual rate of GHB use as a date rape drug.
For better or for worse, public opinion was decidedly against GHB by the late 1990s.
The pattern of GHB legislation that took hold is therefore not surprising. One by one, State Governments got involved: Hawaii, Georgia, Rhode Island, Florida, California, New Jersey, Iowa, Illinois and Texas (home of Hillory J. Farias) all made possession of GHB a felony. Minnesota passed legislation against GHB, despite the fact that law enforcement officers had not found much of the drug in the state. Its not a big problem in Minnesota yet. The drug is working its way north like methamphetamine has worked its way north, said Rep. Wes Skoglund, who sponsored legislation that made GHB illegal in the state (Olson).
Apparently legislation does not require evidence.
This also appears to be true of the bill that was signed by President Clinton making GHB a Schedule I Drug (except for the treatment of narcolepsy, in which case GHB is a Schedule III Drug). The Law is named – appropriately enough – the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000. According to Rep. Bart Stupak, One only has to look at the title of the GHB bill to glimpse at the tragedies that lie behind the easy availability of this drug (Strong).
In fact, an examination of the situations surrounding both individuals deaths is telling. As alluded to above, Hillory Farias was not sexually assaulted and did not die from GHB. The death of Samantha Reid, a fifteen year old girl from Michigan, was as tragic as that of Hillory – and also as highly publicized in the context of GHB date rape drugging. Unlike Ms. Farias, though, Samantha Reid did have GHB in her blood at the time of death. However, Samantha also had alcohol, THC, and nicotine in her blood. Nevertheless, GHB was solely and selectively the focus of blame. Moreover, there have never been any allegations of rape in this case; three individuals were tried (and convicted) of manslaughter — not sexual assault — for having provided her with GHB (Suhr; Irwin).
Why, then, did lawmakers choose to name the date rape drug law after two girls that did not die from GHB alone and that had not been raped?
First, both cases were well publicized in relation to rape and GHB. The actual facts of the matter, therefore, were quite inconsequential to Congressmen seeking to improve their popularity; most people who had heard of the case had been influenced by media coverage depicting the deaths precisely as GHB date rape murders. Second, virtually all media coverage of GHB has put the substance in the context of womens issues. As alluded to above, this concern is not merited from an objective review of the facts: about 3 in 4 cases of overdose affect men, and GHB is related (at worst) to 1 in 50 sexual assaults alleged to involve drugs.
An inspection of Congressional testimony casts further doubt on the factual consistency, validity and impartiality of the legislation. Stephen Zukin, M.D., director of the Division of Clinical and Services Branch of the National Insitute on Drug Abuse, stated himself on March 11, 2000, that The available data on the actual abuse of GHB and its associated consequences is largely anecdotal. GHB is usually abused either (1) for its intoxicating/sedative/euphoriant properties or (2) for its growth hormone releasing effects. [Italization inserted.] He stated that DAWN Medical Examiners have only detected one death coming as a consequence of GHB between 1992 and 1995. He also stated that reports from Poison Control Centers have documented numerous cases [Zukin provides no exact figures] of acute poisonings associated with GHB . . . Symptom severity and durations of action are dose dependent and also relate to the absence or presence of other CNS depressants. This suggests again that GHB alone was not to blame for the most severe cases of poisoning, and this does not suggest that GHB is unique in the risk of leading to such adverse reactions. He also stated that Most of the reports [of GHB-related poisoning] involve white males, deflating the notion that GHB is primarily an issue of womens health. Nowhere in his testimony did Dr. Zukin provide information to support the allegation that GHB was commonly used as a date rape drug. Nowhere in his testimony did Dr. Zukin provide information to support the allegation that GHB is otherwise deadly, dangerous, or threatening to the public. (Statement)
This stands in stark contrast to the actual text of the law, which states that “The Congress finds that the abuse of illicit gamma hydroxybutyric acid is an imminent hazard to the public safety” (Hillory). No supporting evidence is cited anywhere in the laws findings of fact to justify the idea that GHB actually does pose “an imminent hazard to the public safety,” particularly in reference to date-rape (ibid). Indeed, no data anywhere else supports this outrageous claim. Although there certainly have been situations where criminals used GHB as a weapon, this legislation was passed not on the basis of the drug’s actual effects (which are overwhelmingly positive) but on one potential misuse of the drug — a misuse which studies have shown is neither widespread nor unique.
An inspection of Senator Spence Abrahams campaign propaganda underscores the true meaning of this legislation. Sen. Abraham (R) was the co-author of the bill; he served as a Congressman of Michigan – not coincidentally the home state of Samantha Reid. The TV advertisement, aired in August of the 2000 election year (the same year in which the government approved this law), depicts Abraham as an advocate of women and families. The Senator says, “When I heard about this terrible drug I got mad, as a Senator and as a father. So I brought Democrats and Republicans together, and passed the law to make GHB the date rape drug illegal.” The ad ends with the announcer saying: “Spencer Abraham. Protecting our children” (“Michigan”).
It appears that politicians used Samantha Reid and Hillory Farias in this election year as symbols – as patronizing rhetorical props, in effect – of violence against women and of dangers posed to families by sex and drugs. The law was sponsored and approved with bipartisan support, in what looks suspiciously like a ploy to gain the confidence of families and women in the wake of impeachment-era sexual impropriety scandals. (This smacks of symbolic politics, as I will discuss later.)
Still, federal prohibition did not mark the end of GHB panic. This fact is most lucid in the date rape drug trial of Timothy and Kenneth Iverson. The two brothers were charged with rape and aggrivated sodomy for allegedly having drugged and assaulted an 18 year old Georgia State University student. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy L. Shoob presided over the case. In her own words, “While the state has described this as a brutal assault, there was actually no evidence to support that description, and I was sitting here the entire time . . . Rather, there was evidence that the victim actually consented to sexual relations and the victim herself could not recall whether or not she could give consent . . . She did not make any outcry of rape and instead had to be prompted by the police.” Moreover, the student “testified that she had experimented with the drug in the past and she described her experience with the drug as similar to an alcohol high,” according to Judge Shoob (qoute in Schmitt, “Date rape”; Schmitt, “Brothers”).
Nevertheless, it took jurors only 90 minutes to convict the two men. One of the state’s witnesses, a nurse named Jean Strunk, referred to GHB as a “date-rape drug” in violation of the Judge’s orders. According to Judge Shoob, “The jury’s verdict may have been influenced by the injection of this illegal evidence” (quote in Schmitt, “Date rape”).
In another case, the charges levied on a GHB supplier were irrationally severe. Lindley Troy Geborde is being charged with murder for providing a willing recipient with GHB at a rave and for not “telling him about the dangers,” according to a report by the Associated Press. His attorney said, “Maybe his conduct was somewhat negligent, but it doesn’t rise to the level of murder” (Jury Selection). Clearly, GHB has acquired such an evil reputation that authorities now assume malicious intent in its use, possession, and distribution.
The widespread phenomenon that I have described fits the description of moral mass hysteria taken advantage of and partially caused by symbolic politics. Philip Jenkins and Kenneth Thompson present two major theories of moral panic, both of which can apply to this case.
According to the “interest group theory,” as propounded by Jenkins, moral panic arises ultimately as a result of several interest groups; there is evidence for this here, with various groups both causing and benefitting from the GHB panic. These groups include the DEA (whose press releases were crucial in adding GHB to the list of Schedule I drugs, thereby adding to their funding), NIDA (which now has an unprecedented budget of $50 million for so-called “club drugs” alone), the media (which obviously gain from morality-laden sensationalism), and lawmakers such as Senator Abraham (who failed in his bid for reelection, but who currently serves under George W. Bush). An alternate paradigm stems from the notion of social anxiety in a so-called “risk society,” in which panic arises naturally out of malaise, worry, or insecurity; a case could be made for this as well, with the US witnessing an unprecedented level of sexual scandals in Washington that could have led to anxiety surrounding sexual impropriety, possibly creating public pressure for a symbolic scapegoat. Incidents of children acting violently have added to this tension, setting the stage for the reassertion of “traditional family values.” One particular example of this is the school shooting in Boulder, Colorado. Perhaps not by coincidence, a campus publication from Colorado University at Boulder (quoted earlier) describes date rape drugs in an especially alarmist fashion.
In either case, an essential trait is symbolic signification attached to the root element in a moral panic. Generally speaking, one issue is related to some other, such that public opinion and therefore reaction are determined by the nature of this other issue. “A signification spiral does not exist in a vacuum. It can only work if the connecting links are easily established by drawing on pre-existing ideological complexes or discursive formations.” (Thompson, p. 20).
First, anti-GHB rhetoric (whether disseminated via the government, the media, or the public) has tended to take on the discursive structure that had already existed for drugs. The government’s (and therefore the media’s) categorization of GHB as a designer drug, rave drug, and date rape drug all invoke negative “pre-existing discursive formations.” In Dr. Zukin’s testimony before the Congress, for instance, he said “abuse” not “use” in reference to GHB, even when frequent administration or addiction were not implied. This linguistic double-standard is common when referring to drugs, implicitly conveying the value judgment that any use of a “drug” is abuse.
Second, groups have consistently drawn a parallel between GHB and sexual offense, with news reports referring to GHB as a date rape drug even when the report has nothing to do with sexual assault (“Jury Selection”). This has occured in other well-studied panics; Jenkins, in describing a situation in England during the 1980s said, “the emphasis shifted to interest group politics and social issues such as censorship, feminism, gay rights, education, and public morality . . . In all of these areas, debate would be conditioned by moral panics, by stereotypes of sexual violence and threatening sexual predators” (quote in Thompson, pp. 20 21). This has clearly been the case here, with the belabored repetition of the “date-rape drug” epithet staining GHB’s reputation to the point where harmful intention is suspected by its very presence, as evidenced by the recent behavior of the courts.
As the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000 plainly demonstrates by its very title, GHB was not outlawed because of its actual effects, but because of its alleged (or even potential) role in date rape. Thus, GHB became a symbol of sexual assault, of danger to women, of danger to teenagers, of danger to family, of danger to “morality.”
Further, a “panic” implies disproportionality, meaning when “the threat or danger is more substantial than is warranted by a realistic appraisal . . . indicators of disproportionality [include] exaggeration of statistics… singling out a social problem when it is no more dangerous than any other, suggesting that conditions at one point in time pose a severe threat when there are no worse than at other times” (Thompson, pp. 910). It should be clear from the preceding discussion that all these criteria apply to the treatment of GHB.
Furthermore, the response to GHB even follows the stages of moral panic: “First, something. . . is defined as a threat to values or interests. Second, this threat is depicted in an easily recognizable form by the media. Third, there is a rapid buildup of public concern. Fourth, there is a response from authorities . . . Fifth, the panic recedes or results in social changes” (Thompson, p. 8).
In the case of GHB, the panic certainly did not recede. Public reactions to GHB have been and continue to be intensely emotional and severely distorted, resulting in a long series of injustices. To begin with, gamma hydroxybutyrate has a wide range of potential uses that will go untapped because of misleading and sensationalistic media reports, opportunistic politicians, and pervasive unsubstantiated panic. Alcohol addictive, damaging to major organs, and dangerous though it may be remains the only legal means of intoxication (much to the delight of the alcohol industry), with legislation barring the possibility of a recreational substance that does not cause “grievous bodily harm.”
Still, though, this is the very least of our losses.
False memories and false alarms in perceived druggings, triggered by suggestions on the part of the media, the police, and the rest of society, hover around a rate of 40%. A federal law has been passed without scientific justification, and without significant dissent. A jury has convicted two men of rape without any evidence other than the mention of the term “date rape drug.” The State has charged a man with murder for providing GHB to a willing recipient.
Suddenly Salem’s witch trials do not seem so distant. And now, as it was then, the only true “imminent hazard to public safety” would appear to be the public itself.
Lawrence Altman. “Mysterious Illnesses often turn out to be Mass Hysteria.” New York Times. January 18, 2000, late ed., F7.
Keith Bradsher. “Four Get Prison Time in Death Of Girl From Date Rape Drug.” New York Times. March 31, 2000, late ed., A16.
Scott Cameron and Miguel C. Fernandez (ed.). “Toxicity, Gamma Hydroxy-Butyrate.” Emergency Medicine .
“Club Drugs take center stage in new national education and prevention initiative by NIDA and national partners.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. December 2, 1999 .
Jodi S. Cohen. “Clinton signs date-rape law sparked by Michigan teen’s death.” Detroit News. February 20, 2000 < http://detnews.com/2000/nation/0002/ 20/02200079.htm>.
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[The views expressed above are those of the author alone and publication does not imply any endorsement by the publisher. Caveat lector.]