Party drug dependence higher among gay men, expert warns


16 September 2010

In 2009, in response to patients experiencing severe withdrawal reactions from GBL, a party drugs clinic was established in South London. After a year of operation, it was clear that the majority of patients were gay men, consistent with recent findings that they are much more likely to use illegal drugs than the general population.

Dr James Bell, head of the Party Drugs Clinic at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM), said the majority of his patients were young, well-educated, professional gay men.

Dr Bell also said the gay community tended to be early adopters of new party drugs, such as recent new arrivals on the party scene, ‘meow meow’ and ‘ivory wave’.

A recent report by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) found that homosexuals were three times more likely to use illegal drugs than the general population.

Findings from the British Crime Survey estimated that 33 per cent of gay and bisexual people took illegal drugs last year, compared with 10 per cent of heterosexual population. This is partly due to the popularity of stimulants among gay males, especially amyl nitrate (‘poppers’).

Dr Bell, who established the UK’s only GBL withdrawal service at SLaM’s Party Drugs Clinic, said the majority of GBL (gammabutyrolactone) dependent users who attended the clinic were young, gay men who used a range of drugs as part of their party lifestyle.

“I have seen charming, privileged and formerly hardworking young people who found themselves dependent on GBL neglecting friends, family and work commitments and experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop,” Dr Bell explained.

“It is always dangerous to make assumptions or stereotypes about minority groups, however the evidence does indicate that drug use is higher among gay men,” Dr Bell said.

“My experience is that many GBL-dependent patients have great difficulty accessing treatment, and we need to tailor drug services to meet the needs of the gay community.”

Dr Bell said most patients at his clinic were dismayed to discover they had become dependent, not believing so-called party drugs had addictive qualities.

“Patients frequently lament, ‘I didn’t know it was addictive’. Most policy doctors and policy makers are equally unaware that these new drugs can be addictive, and withdrawal can be life threatening.”

Dr Bell said legal highs were generally chemical compounds closely related to known (and banned) psychoactive drugs such as ‘meow meow’, which mimics the effects of ecstasy.

“What we have seen in the last few years is a new breed of designer drugs, made purely to evade the laws surrounding controlled substances. Earlier this year it was ‘meow meow’ (mephedrone), and in recent weeks we have seen the emergence of ‘ivory wave’ (psychoactive stimulant MDPV).”

“We are all playing catch-up as new compounds are recognised, banned – and new drugs appear again, the risks of which slowly become apparent,” he said.

SLaM’s Party Drugs Clinic is open to anyone from across the United Kingdom and offers specialist treatment and withdrawal for people with GBL or GHB dependence, mephedrone misuse, methamphetamine misuse, and party drug dependence.


Side-effects of party drugs

There is no way to predict how a party drug, or a combination of party drugs, will affect you or your friends. Remember that the effects of party drugs can vary greatly due to how you are feeling emotionally, where you are and who you are with. Taking drugs when you feel depressed or anxious can make you feel much worse.

Physical fitness and weight also alter the impacts of drugs. Combining party drugs with alcohol, prescribed drugs or another party drug can result in unexpected reactions.

Watch out for heat exhaustion or overheating in your friends. Symptoms include dizziness, feeling sick, sudden tiredness and headaches or cramps.

If you or a friend is feeling anxious, move away from lights, music and crowds and find a quiet place to chat and calm down.

If you see any of the following symptoms in your friends, get medical help:

Cocaine – confusion and dizziness, combined with a dry throat and/or erratic breathing

Ketamine – temporary paralysis, nausea, vomiting, or slurring of speech

Speed – collapse

Ecstasy – hyperventilation, overheating and unconsciousness

Poppers – poisonous if swallowed, can cause fainting and collapse

GHB – overdose symptoms are convulsions, coma and inability to breath

Notes to editors:

  • Click here for further information on SLaM’s other addiction services
  • Dr James Bell is an addictions consultant at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (SlaM) and head of SlaM’s Party Drugs Clinic. He established the Party Drugs Clinic and pioneered outpatient management for GLB withdrawal. He is also a consultant at SLaM’s Specialist Drug Clinic and Supervised Injecting Clinic. Click here for further information on Dr Bell.
  • South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) provides national services to people across the UK. It also provides mental health and substance misuse services for people living in the London Boroughs of Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. In addition, the Trust provides substance misuse services for people in the London Boroughs of Bexley, Greenwich and Bromley.
  • To arrange an interview or access a case study, please contact Laura Crowden, National Services Media Officer on 020 3228 8584 or

GBL withdrawal at SLaM’s Party Drugs Clinic

A specialist national GBL withdrawal programme was established last year at SLaM’s Party Drugs Clinic. The decision to offer a specialist service for GHB and GBL dependence followed a significant rise in the number of overdoses, with one South London hospital receiving more than three GBL or GHB overdoses every week in 2009.

In the 12 months since opening, the clinic has treated more than 30 people for GBL dependence. All but three have successfully completed outpatient detox, but most reported anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia after they had stopped GBL use, and in most cases it generally took several weeks for patients to show no signs of withdrawal symptoms. Some relapsed during the withdrawal period, demonstrating the need for ongoing care.

The vast majority of GBL users who have undergone detox through the Party Drugs Clinic have been gay men. Mainly well educated and socially integrated young men, most had begun using GBL through clubbing and were also frequent users of other party drugs including ketamine, ecstasy, methamphetamine and amyl nitrate (‘poppers’).

Most users downplayed the dangers associated with party drugs. They generally used GBL for three main purposes – to achieve social confidence, facilitate sexual activity and to treat insomnia. Most began using it as a party drug then used higher doses to induce sleep, quickly resulting in ‘round-the-clock’ dependence.

GBL withdrawal is a life-threatening condition, and requires professional help and appropriate medication. Although declared illegal in December 2009, those attending the clinic said GBL was still readily available, and could be ordered over the internet for next-day delivery.

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