1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

GHB: The new old drug taking over Berlin

May 10, 2019

It's cheap, easy to make, and incredibly dangerous, and Berlin's nightclubs may be complicit in its trade and use. But targeting the clubs would also deprive LGBT communities of a precious oasis.

"Drugs" written in German on a Berlin nightclub toilet stall
Image: DW/E. Schumacher

Clubbing at 9 a.m. on a bright Sunday in Berlin is not as strange as I expected. Not because it's an increasingly popular thing to do, and there are hundreds of other people here, but because Sunday morning is a time for relaxing. For a lot of people who live outside clearly dictated social norms, particularly members of Germany's LGBT communities, there is no cozier place to be than at a nightclub in the morning.

"It's a special space, it's not like any other community I know," says Christian*, a 32-year-old Berliner. "I think people get more addicted to this feeling than to the drugs. People are happy and open, there are fewer drunk people, fewer tourists.

"There's also an element of it being a counterculture to Germany's rigid social structure. It's easy to talk to people here, to make friends."

Desire and danger

The draw is clear. The music is blasting, social disapproval is absent, the space is inviting — it even has a maze and a playground.

But this place is something of a tightrope between haven and deadly excess. A few spaced-out partiers have been here since Saturday morning. The resurgence of the drug GHB (gamma-Hydroxybutric acid) or "G", and its more dangerous prodrug GBL, have Berlin clubs calling an ambulance at least once every 24 hours.

While we're out, Christian gets a text message asking what is an appropriate gift to bring to a wake. The deceased overdosed on G. How many end up dead is not clear, but most people here seem to know at least one person whose life has been claimed by the drug.

It's especially popular at LGBT-friendly parties like the one we're attending. Christian and his friend Alex, a US expat, also point out that they prefer day parties with exuberant drug-takers to long nights full of drunken revelers who might become aggressive or belligerent.

The group uses a variety of drugs to enhance their clubbing experience, such as speed and ketamine, but G is rapidly becoming the most popular, as both euphoriant and aphrodisiac.

GHB is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter whose ingredients are so basic (and legal to purchase), it is incredibly simple to produce. One dose of the clear liquid only costs 10 cents.

"It's also used as a date rape drug," says Julia, a friend of Christian and Alex who disapproves of G. "I know young men who have been attacked by several other guys at once."

Read More: Germany named drug use capital following Europe-wide sewage study

Risk management

To mitigate the myriad risks, the group of friends employs an airport's worth of safety measures. They get the drugs from a dealer they trust using Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. In a separate chat, they keep track of how much they took and when to keep each other from overdosing. With the help of apps like Tripsit, they know that the depressive effects of G are best mitigated by uppers like speed and that mixing it with other depressants like alcohol is what leads people to wake up (or not) in hospital beds.

They don't want to end up like the addicts they know either, who now can't seem to function without G to help them relax.

"I think a lot of people are trying to convince themselves that it's less risky than it is," according to Christian.

So why take the drug at all? Both Christian and Alex point to their unpleasant experiences with alcohol and cannabis use. Indeed, a report commissioned by a UK parliamentary committee found in 2006 that GHB was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco in terms of physical or social harm and addiction.

But comparing G to alcohol, an addictive drug with a long history of social acceptance, should not be used a false equivalence to excuse being reckless, Christian says.

Berlin: A park keeper and the dealers

Berlin clubs: Enforcers or enablers?

Berlin clubs tacitly make a show of banning G. As we arrived, a bouncer found a vial of the drug in someone's bag, took their picture, and publicly announced that they were barred for life from this particular venue. But as another partygoer points out, how could the 24/7 rotation of bouncers possibly remember the face of everyone they've caught?

Moreover, the drug is easily smuggled in taped to one's thigh. In other clubs, revelers tell me, people are actively encouraged to take drugs like speed and ecstasy on the dance floor, so as not to monopolize the toilet stalls.

There are various theories, from the clubbers and Berlin media, as to why clubs aren't busted by police for allowing the trade in banned substances to flourish. Some believe corruption must be involved, others say that Berlin's left-wing city government doesn't want to prosecute drug crimes, seeing drug use as part of the city's controversial "poor but sexy" leftist reputation.

But this community doesn't mind a light hand from police, because these places are also much more than shady drug dens. They are an important refuge in a city rapidly gentrifying itself out of its unique character.

"If we lose our clubs, we lose our safe spaces," says Christian.

*Names have been changed to protect individuals' privacy.

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.