The best GHB — or simply G, as friends call it — I ever took was in New York. It was midnight and raining when we shuffled into the venue, checked our clothes, and dipped in the bathroom to dose.
G comes in the form of a clear, foul-tasting liquid, which we measured with a dropper before squirting it into our mouths. We set timers — next dose was an hour later — and walked down into a throbbing pit of sweat and flesh. A sea of harnesses flashed as laser lights passed over the crowd. As I moved through the men, the feeling started in my knees, moved up to my stomach, and finally to my head. We grabbed each other and held on. The lights and heat made a feeling, a moment — that same dark, liquidy beauty that guys on the recent Atlantis cruise making headlines are still coming down from. Many of them, I imagine, are having “event drop” — doldrums following several days of partying and sex.
No one is surprised to learn there were copious drugs on board. No one, at least among my friends, was surprised to learn that a TV star, Joel Taylor, died on the cruise — the result of a reported GHB overdose. I have seen countless friends spiral out and pass out on sofas. I know several who’ve been rushed to the ER. GHB is easy to overdose on. A few drops are the difference between a comfortable high and passing out on the floor. Combined with alcohol, the drug is lethal.
It’s unclear what happened with Taylor, so I don’t want to exploit his death or cause more pain to his family. But his death is drawing a needed spotlight on gay party culture and on Atlantis Events, the West Hollywood-based gay cruise company. The FBI even launched an investigation into the actor’s death — an investigation that, according to a report, has been dropped.
Opinions on social media are split between people blasting the drug along with the culture that permits it, and people defending G by (correctly) stating that the drug isn't harming and killing as many people as opioids. What’s missing from the debate is this sentiment: Drugs are fun, and people will do them regardless of who wins this debate, so let’s take necessary steps to make them safer.
People are talking about a “crackdown” on GHB, which makes me nervous. Crackdowns don’t make people safer. They don’t prevent overdose deaths. They simply force people who use it to take greater risks in order to do so.
Using drugs with others is safer than using them alone. It’s not the safest course, but it’s something. And when a milliliter is the difference between a casual high and an overdose, a little something matters. A crackdown on drugs makes people use alone. A crackdown takes away the community of drug use — the “safer space” of use — and puts us more at risk.
Harm reduction is how you save lives — not the threat of arrest. This observation has been made by Travis Cosban, an ER doctor who was on the cruise. Following the report of Taylor’s death, the doctor wrote a letter to Towleroad describing the fear many passengers felt of getting caught with illegal substances.
“Between Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram, rumors were flying and anxiety seemed to be high among those passengers who implied they might engage in any sort of illegal activity. … I would not expect Atlantis or Royal Caribbean to do nothing in their fight to squash drug use or drug distribution on board. In fact, I saw a dog with authorities when I boarded and I know there were arrests. I cannot deny that the organizations completed reasonable searches in the fight against drugs prior to leaving port. What I can deny is that Atlantis did their part in creating an environment where party-goers felt comfortable seeking medical attention.”
This is what happens in a crackdown — in the absence of “safe space.” Without harm-reduction measures — which in this case might look like a tent set up near the dance floor with medical professionals capable of administering help in the event of an overdose, passing out water bottles, and the like — people don’t seek lifesaving help for fear of arrest. We need to change the ways we keep people safe, along with the ways we speak about drugs and those who use them.
The drug I have some history with is meth — a substance that most gay men I know will unanimously agree is both harmful and life-altering, and still look the other way when friends use it. Every gay man I know has been affected by meth in some way. We’ve lost friends to it or witnessed lovers ruin their lives with it. Yet queer media won’t address meth as the great gay pandemic. That title remains reserved for AIDS.
Meth is the invisible sickness, a scourge that isn’t getting better. ”Higher powers” don’t seem to be inhibiting its spread. At some point we need to entertain the notion that perhaps our culture and our laws — our “war on drugs” — may be complicit. I do not have the cure, but I’ll wager that the ways we simultaneously shame drug use, glamorize beautiful bodies, set extreme image standards, isolate each other through social media, and demand we meet outrageous sexual ideals collectively aggravate a problem — a problem I consider a social sickness, not an individual one.
Those who live and work in the world of sex, as I do, know there is a dark underbelly to all this, a place home to broken people and broken lives. For me, the doorway into that place is drugs. I’ve stepped through that door enough to know I can’t stay there, because I don’t know if I’ll get back. I have many friends who are stuck on that side. It is cruel and frightening to me that they are there and I’m here. I don’t know how to save them.
If we can fix this — if we can stop shaming drugs by criminalizing them — and start taking care of each other, we might prevent deaths like this one. The so-called war on drugs will not be won by fighting but by understanding.
ALEXANDER CHEVES is an Atlanta-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @BadAlexCheves.