The Human Rights Campaign announced Wednesday that companies wishing to keep their title next year of “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality” will need to advance the community’s rights in the public sphere.
Writing in The Advocate, HRC interim President Joni Madison said her organization would no longer automatically award the distinction to firms achieving a top score in the Corporate Equality Index, the group’s tool to measure companies’ support for LGBTQ workplace inclusion.
“Corporate social responsibility today is about going beyond HR plans and benefits,” she wrote in an op-ed. “It’s about the business companies do and how their values carry through everything they do — from internal policies to products to politics.”
For the 2023 index, companies will still be able to achieve a top score of 100 based on the group’s existing set of criteria for measuring internal LGBTQ inclusion. However, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group said it will only recognize employers as the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality” if they exceed its index’s benchmarks.
“Companies earning this distinction must have a 100 on the CEI and will need to be bar setters for how companies can do even more — from taking a stand in the public square against elected officials harming LGBTQ+ youth to mitigating the harm of their products and services on our community,” Madison wrote. “Importantly, to receive this award, they will need to be nominated by their workers.”
HRC published its first Corporate Equality Index in 2002. Back then, it rated companies on a set of seven factors, which included having written nondiscrimination policies protecting LGBT employees, offering health insurance coverage to employees’ same-sex domestic partners and engaging in “respectful and appropriate” marketing to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Only 13 of the 319 rated employers achieved a top score of 100 in the inaugural index. The median score for rated companies was 57 that year.
This year, 1,271 employers actively participated in the index survey, which now uses an expanded set of criteria to assess companies. A top score was achieved by 842 participants, or two-thirds of respondents.
Yet, the recent wave of legislation targeting LGBTQ individuals, in particular transgender youth, has once again forced the group to move the bar higher for companies that wish to achieve the status of “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality.”
One company that claims this title is the Chicago-based financial services firm Morningstar, which has maintained a top score in the index since 2018.
“We’re proud Morningstar has earned designation as among the ‘Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality’ for five years in a row, and we certainly aspire to keep the streak going,” said David Williams, chief design officer for Morningstar and executive sponsor of the [email protected] Employee Resource Group. “As a ratings agency ourselves, we recognize the power of ratings to drive transparency and accountability.”
Morningstar pointed to its support for the Equality Act as further proof that it is committed to LGBTQ equality beyond its own walls. If passed by Congress, the Equality Act would extend federal protection from discrimination and segregation to LGBTQ individuals.
But the change to the index also comes at a time when the corporate world has come under increased scrutiny for its alleged duplicity when it comes to advancing LGBTQ equality, particularly in the political realm.
Earlier this year, the Human Rights Campaign deducted 25 points from Fox Corp.’s index score of 100 following Fox News’ coverage of Florida’s controversial Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“Fox News has a history of sharing misinformation and disinformation about the LGBTQ+ community,” Aryn Fields, the organization’s senior press secretary, told Deadline at the time. “We can no longer allow Fox Corporation to maintain its score if Fox News personalities and contributors continue to deny the existence of transgender people, minimize the violence transgender individuals face, refer to parents of LGBTQ+ youth as perverts, or equate leaders of LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion efforts with sex offenders.”
Beyond the Human Rights Campaign, organizers of Pride events have also reconsidered their relationships with corporate sponsors who make campaign contributions to politicians advancing legislation that, advocates say, would harm the LGBTQ community. Last month, Pride Northwest in Portland, Oregon, rejected sponsorship money from JPMorgan Chase after an investigation by Popular Information revealed that the firm made political contributions to anti-LGBTQ politicians through its corporate PAC.
JPMorgan Chase is among the 842 employers that achieved a top score in the 2022 index. But it is far from the only large corporation to finance the campaigns of anti-LGBTQ politicians, according to Popular Information.
In a statement to NBC News, JPMorgan Chase affirmed its “unwavering commitment to members of the LGBT+ community” and stated that the company “continues to promote an inclusive society where everyone feels welcomed, equal and included.”
“In communities across the United States, LGBT+ people and their families are facing barriers to, and erosion of, equal rights and protections,” a spokesperson for the global financial services company said. “JPMorgan Chase opposes discrimination in any form, including homophobia and transphobia, as well as any public policies which could harm our employees, customers and the communities where we do business.”
While no one company spurred Human Rights Campaign to update the index, the organization maintains that the change aligns with the demands of employees and customers who support LGBTQ equality.
“Employees who see their company giving to extremist politicians, who see products being sold by their company that refute their existence, who hear lawmakers paint them as villains and are met by only silence from their companies, want ‘Best Place to Work’ to mean more,” Madison wrote in The Advocate. “We do too.”
In today’s heightened culture war, the coffers of the anti-gay movement are overflowing. According to publicly available annual returns, 11 nonprofit groups identified as anti-LGBTQ hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center took in over$110 million in contributions during the financial year ending in 2020.
The dollar amount represents a recent high-water mark for the organizations, whose take of donations, grants and other noncash contributions has increased steadily since 2016, when the same 11 groups reported more than $87 million in such contributions.
In just four years, their total revenue swelled by over 25 percent, with some indication that the positive trend continued into 2021. The multimillion-dollar war chest has bolstered a movement that just a few years ago appeared to be losing ground in America’s decadeslong culture war around lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights. Far from retreating, the groups have won significant battles at all levels of American government and society — from local school boards to the federal courts.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, based in Montgomery, Alabama, has tracked the anti-LGBTQ movement for more than a decade. In 2011, the SPLC published its first list of 13 “hate groups” that propagate known falsehoods and pseudoscience to disparage gender and sexual minorities. Since 2020, the organization has been tracking more than 40 entities,of which many engage in a host of issues beyond LGBTQ rights, like abortion and Covid-related mandates. Several groups are also churches, which are exempt from filing annual returns and therefore do not disclose their finances.
Many of these groups assert that LGBTQ people are a threat to society itself. “
SCOTT MCCOY, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
Then, as now, a loose affiliation of fundamentalist churches, conservative law centers and far-right advocacy organizations makes up the anti-LGBTQ movement.
“Many of those, while not specifically tied to a church, are rooted in the conservative Christian, biblical sense of human sexuality,” said Scott McCoy, the interim deputy legal director for LGBTQ rights and special litigation for the SPLC and the SPLC Action Fund, the group’s political action committee.
But simply holding a religious belief that views homosexuality or transgender identity as sinful does not automatically land a church or an organization on the SPLC’s list of hate groups.
“Many of these groups assert that LGBTQ people are a threat to society itself. That kind of extremist rhetoric and belief is part of what goes into our decision-making process,” McCoy said. He also pointed to groups that justify violence against LGBTQ people, like Westboro Baptist Church.
‘The hard core of the anti-gay movement’
When the SPLC began tracking anti-LGBTQ hate in the early 2010s,the organization noted that “a small coterie of groups now comprise the hard core of the anti-gay movement.” The same groups — many now flush with financial resources — continue to shape the anti-LGBTQ agenda.
“As of today, there probably are five or six key players,” McCoy said, highlighting the Family Research Council, the Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel and the American College of Pediatricians as parts of the core.
From 2011 to 2021, the total revenue of the Family Research Council — an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., that, according to its website, believes “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it” and “is also harmful to society at large” — jumped from over $12 million to more than $23 million.
During the same period, contributions to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, more than doubled, from over $34.5 million in 2011 to more than $76 million in 2021. According to its website, the group aims to secure “generational wins” to ensure “the law respects God’s creative order for marriage, the family, and human sexuality.”
In a statement, Jeremy Tedesco, the senior counsel and senior vice president of corporate engagement at the Alliance Defending Freedom, touted its judicial track record and alleged that the SPLC has “destroyed its own credibility because of its blatant partisan agenda.”
“Alliance Defending Freedom is among the largest and most effective legal advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting the religious freedom and free speech rights of all Americans. Our record since 2011 includes 13 Supreme Court victories, including two wins last year and one upcoming case next term,” Tedesco said. “Our track record of success is due in large part to those who generously support our work, and increased giving demonstrates the growing movement to protect Americans’ First Amendment freedoms.”
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, based in Orlando, Florida, said that the organization is “neither anti-LGBTQ nor a hate group” and that the SPLC’s “self-appointed hate group list is false and defamatory.”
“We hate no one and oppose violence and demeaning language or behavior towards anyone,” Staver said in a statement. “We believe every person is created in the image of God and has inherent dignity and value. Liberty Counsel believes everyone is entitled to religious freedom and freedom of speech.”
The Family Research Council and the American College of Pediatricians did not respond to requests for comment. They have previously rejected the accusation that they are hate groups.
‘Outliers’ who ‘wield a pretty big hammer’
The significant flows of contributions to the groups, however, do not reflect a growing antagonism toward the LGBTQ community in broader American society.
Survey after survey confirms that Americans of many different political stripes and religious affiliations have become more supportive of LGBTQ rights over the past decade. According to the2021 American Values Atlas, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans supported same-sex marriage last year, up from 47 percent a decade before. That included majorities of historically conservative religious groups, like Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and nearly half of all Republicans.
The same survey found even greater public support for protections against discrimination in the workplace and public accommodations for LGBTQ people.In 2021, the American Values Atlas reported that 79 percent of respondents supported such protections.
One group in the American Values Atlas continues to lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to affirming LGBTQ equality: white evangelical Protestants, whose fringe, far-right elements comprise the core of the anti-LGBTQ movement in the U.S. today.https://iframe.nbcnews.com/qDAUKZK?_showcaption=true&app=1
“As someone who writes social science, I can’t tell you how many sentences I have begun with the words ‘with the lone exception of white evangelical Protestants,’” said Robert P. Jones, the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, the organization behind the American Values Atlas. “Whether it is on immigration, LGBTQ issues, abortion — white evangelical Christians are increasingly outliers to the middle of the country, not just to the left.”
Jones, a scholar of white Christianity in the U.S., has spent years tracking the cultural and political power of white evangelical Protestants.
“I think the biggest marker of change among white evangelicals over the last decade has just been the internal shifts that they have undergone,” Jones said. “They have shrunk by nearly a third just over the last decade. Today, they are 14.5 percent of the population. And as they have shrunk, they have been hemorrhaging young people. I think that is one of the reasons why they have become increasingly out of step with the middle of the country.”
Despite the bleed of parishioners, white evangelicals have managed to maintain their power in electoral politics by solidifying their stake in the Republican Party. Between 2016 and 2020, Pew Research Center found that white evangelical voters’ support of President Trump rose from 77 percent to 84 percent. Although this voting bloc only accounted for 19 percent of the total electorate in 2020, it made up 34 percent of all Trump voters.
“When you’re a third of one party’s base, you wield a pretty big hammer,” Jones said.
Without the broad support of white evangelicals, Pew Research Center observed, Trump would have lost to Joe Biden by more than 20 points in the last presidential election.
From the start of his foray in national politics, Trump made an effort to woo this key constituency. In 2016, during his first run for the Oval Office, Trump formed a so-called evangelical executive advisory board to help shape his political platform. Among the people in the group of advisers were heavy hitters in evangelical Christianity, as well as the anti-LGBTQ movement, including James Dobson, an Alliance Defending Freedom co-founder and the founder and former leader of the fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family.
“We saw this shift throughout Trump’s presidency — and it has certainly lasted past it — of the term ‘evangelical’ becoming more of a political signifier than it is a religious one, that being almost a stand-in for white, Christian nationalist beliefs,” said Maggie Siddiqi, the senior director of Religion and Faith at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.
Siddiqi noted that among evangelicals, there is some noted resistance to marrying faith with contemporary American politics. For example, in 2019, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty launched the campaign Christians Against Christian Nationalism, which, among other tenets, holds that “conflating religious authority and political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups.”
Still, conservative white evangelicals have found in the modern Republican Party champions for a political agenda that extends well beyond LGBTQ rights. On issues of abortion, religious freedom and, more recently, Covid vaccination mandates, today’s GOP has aligned itself with the interests of many white evangelicals, affording the group outsized power in the U.S.’s two-party political system.
With so many evangelicals flocking to one side of the political spectrum, Jones said, they have “yielded disproportionate influence in the public, by leveraging a political party.”
A strategic ‘pivot’
At the same time, the political arenas where conservatives and progressives battle over LGBTQ rights and other fraught social issues have continued to evolve.
“There’s been a focus downward to more local places like school boards, boards of health, bodies of that nature,” said McCoy of the SPLC. “Now they are taking up the latest fault lines in the culture war, whether it be mask mandates, LGBTQ school policies or even critical race theory.”
There has also been “a pivot” to targeting the transgender community, said Sharita Gruberg, the vice president for the LGBTQI+ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.
“The groups that are opposed to LGBTQ equality did their message testing and found that attacking gay people is no longer the broadly popular culture war totem that they used in the ’90s,” Gruberg said. “From the bathroom bills in 2015 and 2016 to the bans on trans kids playing school sports, it is easier for these groups to frame attacks to focus on trans kids paired with policies that they say are restoring parental rights. It’s a bit of a Trojan horse.”https://iframe.nbcnews.com/j2EQSqk?_showcaption=true&app=1
The Parental Rights in Education bill — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics — which is on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, is a case in point. If it is signed into law, it would prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools. Opponents say the law would harm LGBTQ youths by creating an antagonistic educational environment. But Republican state Rep. Joe Harding, who introduced the bill in the House in January, contends the measure is about “empowering parents.”
Last month, Harding defended his bill in a blog post for the Family Research Council, an SPLC-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group since 2011.
Gruberg contends that protecting LGBTQ rights nationwide would require federal intervention. Congress is considering the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. But passage of the law is far from ensured: All Democratic-voting senators and 10 Senate Republicans would need to vote in favor of the measure to overcome the filibuster.
Even then, the law could still meet its demise in the courts. While the Supreme Court has a history of affirming LGBTQ rights, conservatives now command a solid majority.
The most recent addition to the court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, even has a past with members of the anti-LGBTQ movement. From 2011 to 2016, Barrett gave lectures on five different occasions to theBlackstone Legal Fellowship, the Alliance Defending Freedom’s flagship summer program for Christian law students. During her confirmation hearing in 2020, Barrett described her experience with the Blackstone Legal Fellowship as a “wonderful one” but also said that “nothing about any of my interactions … were ever indicative of any kind of discrimination on the basis of anything.”
For Jones, the pace at which LGBTQ equality has advanced has created a “last stand mentality” among white Christian conservatives, who have worked diligently over the decade to shore up their power on the federal bench.
“It’s that dynamic that is driving the fundraising,” he said. “There’s a kind of last-stand desperation, an apocalyptic feeling that if we don’t do something now, we will lose the country. And if we don’t do something to win it back, there will never be another opportunity.”
It had been several years since professor Joseph Palamar had seen that unmistakable “caveman face,” the telltale sign of an imminent overdose of gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, or GHB.
Standing among throngs of concertgoers at a Brooklyn music venue last year, Palamar spotted the bulky man with the contorted face nearby. He was struggling to remain conscious.
“I’ve noticed that when people are meant to pass out and they keep forcing it, they make these very strange, primitive faces,” Palamar, an epidemiologist and associate professor of population health at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, told NBC News. “They look like they are in such euphoria it’s almost painful.”
Within minutes, the man succumbed, apparently to the suppressive effects of the drug, and collapsed to the floor. Security staff raced over and carried him away.
The ordeal reminded Palamar of New York’s sweaty nightclubs at the turn of the millennium, the same venues that had sparked his interest in studying drug use. Back then, overdoses, particularly on GHB, were so common that some clubs hired private ambulances to avoid 911 calls and police scrutiny. One club allegedly hid unconscious patrons in a back room without medical assistance.
Despite these efforts, the clubs didn’t go unnoticed. After a rash of overdoses across the United States in the late ’90s, Congress scheduled GHB as a controlled substance in 2000. Exposures to GHB reported to poison control centers fell almost immediately.
But 20 years on, a new generation of recreational users — a disproportionate number of them gay and lesbian, according to researchers — has rediscovered the drug. Recent indictments in a Texas federal court reveal that today’s networks for distributing GHB aren’t spread over local dealers but far-flung markets linking buyers to legal businesses with dubious motives. Social media and the world’s largest online marketplace are also tangled in this web. This illicit network generates millions of dollars each year and has spurred a small but growing crisis, for which federal regulators and the medical community appear ill-equipped and unprepared.
Occurring naturally in the body, gamma-hydroxybutyric acid was first synthesized in a lab in the 1960s. Although its application in medicine has always been limited, GHB has had various recreational uses. In the 1980s, health food stores marketed the compound as a dietary supplement. Then, in the ’90s, the drug found its way into American nightlife.
In small doses — mere milliliters — GHB produces feelings of relaxation and confusion and heightens sexual arousal, lending to its allure as a party drug. It can also cause amnesia and hallucinations.
While not particularly addictive, the drug has a steep dose-response relationship, meaning the difference between experiencing euphoria and losing consciousness is a matter of a few drops of the clear, viscous liquid. It is this quality of GHB that gives it the nickname “the date-rape drug,” although the compound is rarely a factor in sexual assault. Overdoses can result in coma and respiratory arrest, which to an unaccustomed observer may appear as if the affected person has only fallen asleep.
GHB overdoses surged in the United States during the 1990s. In 1995, the Drug Abuse Warning Network recorded 145 emergency department visits for GHB-related illness in a single year. By 2000, this number was nearing 5,000. That same year, the American Association of Poison Control Centers logged some 2,000 exposures to GHB and its analogues as well as six deaths.
In reacting to the growing crisis, Congress passed the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000, which authorized the attorney general to list GHB as a Schedule I controlled substance. The law, named after two teenagers who allegedly died from GHB overdoses after unknowingly ingesting the drug, also targeted GHB analogues, or chemicals that are “substantially similar” to the illegal compound. Two of these — gamma-butyrolactone (GBL) and 1,4-butanediol (BDO) — were named in the act’s text.
Once ingested, GBL and BDO metabolize into GHB and have similar clinical effects. But unlike GHB, both chemicals have widespread use in industrial manufacturing, which prevents them from being regulated as controlled substances. Under the Farias-Reid act, GBL became subjected to greater control by the Drug Enforcement Administration, while BDO was left unregulated. Even so, under the new law, the sale and distribution of either GBL or BDO could result in criminal prosecution if the seller knew the buyer would consume the chemical.
New market for an old drug
After the federal government targeted GHB, reports of its use began to fall. By 2005, poison control centers in the U.S. only recorded some 550 exposures to GHB and one death.
During that same period, online retail grew to offer new avenues for buying and selling GHB and its analogues under the guise of legitimate business.
In 2002, in its first major action against the sale of GHB, codenamed Operation Webslinger, federal agents busted four drug-trafficking rings that had used the internet to connect with buyers. One of these operations, a mother-son team in Missouri, was accused of setting up a limited liability company called Miracle Cleaning Products to deal BDO online. Through their business, the duo could legally purchase the chemical in bulk from two U.S.-based suppliers and then distribute smaller quantities to their customers throughout the U.S. When law enforcement finally arrested the family, federal agents recovered 2,200 gallons of BDO and seized $300,000 in cash. Ultimately, the court sentenced the mother to 14 years in federal prison and the son to more than eight years.
Congress again took action by passing the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006. In addition to establishing the national sex offender registry, the law made it illegal to use the internet to sell GHB or its analogues to any person without a legal prescription to use the drug or any business not authorized to handle the chemical. Anyone convicted of using the internet to sell these compounds to unauthorized buyers could face a fine and 20 years imprisonment.
The new law also authorized the attorney general to develop regulations for record-keeping and reporting by anyone handling BDO. To date, the Department of Justice has not established these requirements.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which is part of the DOJ, told NBC News the it “has not promulgated any regulations that were authorized but not required by legislation,” adding that “1,4-butanediol is produced in large volumes for a multitude of legitimate industrial uses, none of which are intended for human consumption.”
Last month, federal agents raided Right Price Chemicals, a wholesaler in Texas, and arrested nine individuals who were accused of distributing BDO for human consumption beginning in 2015. According to the DOJ, the defendants had used the internet to sell the compound to buyers in 48 states. Some of these buyers then dealt smaller quantities to other users.
In just four years, sales of BDO generated $4.5 million for Right Price Chemicals, according to the Department of Justice. Prosecutors also claim that the product caused at least two deaths.
A lawyer for one of the defendants told NBC News that Right Price Chemicals warned customers on its website and its products that BDO was not for human consumption.
“Simply because people misuse a product does not place criminal liability on the retailer of that product,” Ryan Gertz, the lawyer, said. “Right Price Chemicals is a legitimate business that maintained thorough records, paid taxes, employed experts to advise them about proper practices and openly consulted with the government about its operations.”
The defendants in the case have pleaded not guilty and attest that they only distributed BDO for legitimate, legal purposes. If convicted, they face a minimum of 20 years, and up to life, in federal prison.
Right Price Chemicals is not the only business that has cashed in on BDO. Companies purportedly based in Europe, China and India market the compound on English-language websites. Stateside, companies have also found success by selling BDO on Amazon, the world’s largest online marketplace. As of last week, two third-party sellers offered consumer-sized quantities of BDO on Amazon (Amazon removed these products after NBC News reached out to the company for comment).
In the interest of public health, NBC News has chosen not to name the companies or share their websites and social media accounts.
One of these sellers markets its products as an “organic reagent” and “heavy-duty cleaner” with multiple at-home uses, though the Drug Enforcement Administration maintains that 1,4-butanediol “has no household applications.”
On Amazon, the companies’ products were much pricier than traditional cleaning supplies. Whereas most heavy-duty cleaners on Amazon retail for about $15, BDO of a comparable size went for over $100.
Both sellers are legally registered in different Midwestern states as limited liability companies. The name of one suggests it is a chemical wholesaler; however, it only distributes 1,4-butanediol. The other began as an all-natural soap company in 2015 but switched to selling BDO via its website and Amazon last year.
Prior to early August, buyers could also purchase BDO through the website of one of the sellers using cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin.
One seller included a legal disclaimer on its Amazon product page stating that its BDO was not for human consumption. Nevertheless, commenters on several blogs, including Reddit, have discussed purchasing BDO as a GHB substitute through Amazon.
NBC News attempted to contact multiple people who allegedly purchased BDO from one of the third-party sellers on Amazon. Only one agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. This buyer confirmed purchasing 1,4-butanediol on Amazon in order to ingest it and said the seller did not ask for justification when placing the order. The buyer said that the day after consuming the BDO, they felt “absolutely terrible.” The compound, this individual said, caused them to feel fatigued, nauseous and confused.
Shortly after NBC News began contacting these alleged buyers, the third-party seller removed images of BDO bottles and packaging labels from its Instagram account. The company also removed its offering of BDO from its website and instead provided links directing customers to its product pages on the Amazon and Walmart marketplaces.
Amazon prohibits third-party sellers from using its marketplace to sell scheduled controlled substances, like GHB, and List I chemicals, like GBL. BDO is neither. Still, Amazon specifies that its list of restricted products is “not all-inclusive” and the sale of “unsafe” products is strictly prohibited.
“Third party sellers are independent businesses and are required to follow our selling guidelines when selling in our store. Those who do not will be subject to action including potential removal of their account,” an Amazon spokesperson told NBC News. “The products in question are no longer available.”
Walmart also prohibits third-party sellers from selling controlled substances and “products that are subject to regulatory action or criminal enforcement.” Like Amazon, Walmart removed 1,4-butanediol products from its website following NBC News’ request for comment.
In a statement, a Walmart spokesperson said: “We strive to make our third-party Marketplace a trusted destination for safe, high quality products. We require our third-party sellers to comply with all applicable laws and our prohibited products policy. We removed the product 1,4-butanediol from Marketplace and have taken steps to prevent sellers from listing similar items going forward.”
NBC News tried to contact both companies that formerly sold 1,4-butanediol on the Amazon and Walmart marketplaces. Neither responded.
One of the sellers, however, appears to have moved to another major online marketplace after being removed from Amazon and Walmart.com. This marketplace, whose name NBC News will not publish in the interest of public safety, makes sellers’ purchase histories publicly available and shows the seller earned over $2,670 in just 48 hours this week from selling 35 units of BDO.
The comeback of a ‘party drug’
As the online market for GHB and its analogues has grown in recent years, researchers have seen an uptick in the drugs’ recreational use.
From 2016 to 2019, Palamar and Katherine Keyes, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, surveyed adults at electronic dance music parties in New York City to track relative changes in drug use. In that three-year span, they found that the rate of GHB use increased from one in 100 to roughly one in 25, a relative increase of 300 percent.
But for certain demographic groups, the use of GHB is far more widespread. In another survey taken from 2016 to 2018, Palamar and a group of researchers at NYU and Rutgers University found that both gays and lesbians at electronic dance parties were at higher odds for GHB use than straight patrons. According to the study, gay men were nearly 12 times more likely than heterosexual men to self-report GHB use within the past year. Lesbians were nearly seven times more likely than straight women. While gays and lesbians reported comparable or higher rates of use across most surveyed drug types, the difference in GHB use between gay and straight attendees was by far the greatest.
It was in nightlife that Jon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy, discovered GHB.
As a newcomer to New York City in 2013, Jon, like many young gay men, found a community in nightclubs where he began taking GHB with friends. At first, the drug was only a cheap weekend indulgence.
After drinking one glass of water mixed with GHB, “I wouldn’t need to drink for the rest of the night,” Jon said. “That’s a very attractive selling point.”
But the party didn’t always end on Monday. What had started as only a weekend exploit soon became a weekday occurrence and eventually a physical dependence on the drug.
For several years, no one — including Jon’s boyfriend at the time — knew of this dependence. Even when Jon acknowledged his problem to himself, he still didn’t reveal it to others.
“I wanted to detox without anyone knowing, because at that point I knew I was only doing it for maintenance,” he said. “I was only doing it to curb the withdrawals.”
These were often debilitating. If Jon didn’t ingest GHB on a regular basis, his body would begin to show symptoms akin to alcohol withdrawal. He would sweat and shake. His anxiety would soar to the point of confusion. As a young person trying to make something of himself in New York, Jon needed to maintain his dependence on GHB. The alternative — abruptly stopping his GHB use — was to risk a coma and even death.
So, Jon continued to consume 1.25 milliliters of GHB every two hours for three and a half years.
When he finally sought help at a rehabilitation center last summer, Jon encountered a different problem altogether.
“They had never heard of the drug,” he said of the rehab’s staff. “They had no idea what it was. They didn’t know how to treat it. They didn’t know how to deal with it. Nothing.”
Ultimately, Jon’s doctors treated him with diazepam, which has been shown to be effectivein treating GHB dependence. As of today, Jon has been in recovery for over a year.
The ignorance around GHB that Jon experienced in rehab is not unique to a single health care provider or institution. It pervades the entire society.
“It’s called ‘generational forgetting,’” said Palamar, using a term coined by the social psychologist Lloyd Johnston. “One generation could be fully aware of the potential adverse effects of a drug, but then the next generation just doesn’t know.”
This “forgetting” may also contribute to the apparent rise in GHB use among gays and lesbians.
“In the gay community, people don’t tend to go out for a very long period of their lives,” said Guy Smith, producer of the popular gay Pines Party on New York’s Fire Island. “A gay generation in nightlife is about 10 years, so the conversation that people have about a drug in any particular place will only last that long. There is no conventional wisdom.”
Like Palamar, Smith came of age in New York nightlife at the turn of the millennium when GHB overdoses spiked. In recent years, Smith said, use of the drug has started peaking again.
Spurring this rise are industries, like online retail and social media, which came of age in that same timeframe and which therefore lack experience with the drug.
In such a lax environment, the front lines for addressing GHB abuse have shifted to unlikely places. Several nightclubs and parties, including Guy Smith’s events, now enforce a zero-tolerance policy on GHB. The move is not without its naysayers.
But Smith and Palamar stress that these policies save lives.
Both men witnessed GHB devastate New York nightlife when clubs ignored problematic drug use in the early 2000s. Young opponents of zero-tolerance policies, Palamar said, were “not around when people were dropping like flies” and “not there with all the deaths.” And he hopes they never will be.