The urgent need for a coordinated harm reduction response was highlighted this morning on Newstalk.
Hot Press’ Stuart Clark appeared this morning on Pat Kenny’s Newstalk show to discuss the Irish chemsex scene, and the drugs like GHB that fuel it. Here’s the report he compiled during the summer on what appears to be a growing phenomenon, and one which needs a coordinated response from government, the medical profession and the LGBT community and its support networks.
You can help us find out how prevalent chemsex drugs are here by taking part in the Global Drug Survey, for which Hot Press is once again the official Irish partner.
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The truth behind Dublin's gay chemsex scene:
Previously regarded as a UK phenomenon, parties at which gay men take GHB and crystal meth and indulge in high-risk sex are now a regular occurrence in Dublin.
It’s been notable down through the years that Irish and UK drug-taking habits haven’t always mirrored each other. While we tend to stick to tried and tested psychoactives like cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy, the Brits are always mad to try something new like 2CB, DOC, DMT and synthetic cannabis, which do crop up here but in far smaller quantities.
There’s as much heroin on this side of the Irish Sea as there is theirs, but thankfully we haven’t imported the UK’s major crack cocaine problem.
When Dublin experienced an alarming increase last year in new HIV cases, we wondered if it could be down to the sort of gay chemsex that Global Drug Survey coordinator and addiction psychiatrist Dr. Adam Winstock has encountered, in his central London clinic.
“A minority of gay men are injecting mephedrone and, because it makes you horny, they end up having multiple partners,” he told us 12 months ago. “They don’t know how to inject drugs and are sharing needles, so they’re engaging in two types of high-risk behaviour. The sex tends to be pretty fast and furious, so you get anal tears and blood coming into the equation. Why are they doing it? Because it feels fucking amazing!”
We subsequently talked to several addiction specialist GPs and discovered that although mephedrone was widely available in the capital, it was pre-existing heroin users that were shooting it up.
Fast-forward 12 months and things have changed dramatically: Hot Press has learned from sources within the gay community that there are between 20 and 30 private chemsex parties taking place every week in the capital.
That the latest chemsex drug of choice, GHB, is widely available in Dublin isn’t in doubt.
The Rialto Community Drug Team has started working with people who are having problems with GHB, AKA liquid ecstasy, and its various derivatives. Meanwhile, the HSE National Drug Treatment Centre has for the past ten months been running a GHB clinic, which refers clients to Beaumont Hospital where a number of people have undergone G detox this year. Launching soon is chemsex.ie, which will act as a gateway for those seeking information on the subject.
Just how widespread the practice is in Ireland is likely to become apparent on June 10, when Gay Switchboard Ireland Director, Adam Shanley, gives a chemsex presentation in Dublin Castle, as part of the Gay Sex Forum.
“We’ll look at what we’ve done to date in terms of interventions, and what we plan for the future,” Shanley tells Hot Press. “There will be information gathered from the Men’s Internet Sex Survey, which had about 3,500 Irish respondents and questions relating to the sexualised use of drugs. I’m also involved in an HSE project to survey the clients attending the Gay Men’s Health Service on Baggot Street, so rather than relying on anecdotal evidence – which there’s plenty of – we’ll have some hard facts.”
The Men’s Internet Sex Survey is likely to confirm the popularity here of crystal meth, which among users – who believe it to be “simply the best” – is referred to as Tina.
“A year ago I’d never been offered crystal, now it’s everywhere,” proffers 27-year-old Ciaran, a Dubliner who doesn’t participate in chemsex himself, but has friends of the same age who do. “People don’t come up to you in pubs and clubs and say, ‘Do you want to come home and have mad chemsex with me.’ Most of the hookups take place through Apps like Grindr and GROWLr. You have five or six guys going to someone’s house late on Saturday night and non-stop fucking on drugs until Sunday evening. They’re taking crystal and GHB to get horny and then using cannabis or benzos to come down. There’s definitely slamming going on, although my friend can’t stand the sight of needles and won’t inject or be injected. Sometimes condoms are used, sometimes they’re not.”
Ciaran makes the point that, “While a lot of people on the gay scene here are talking about chemsex, it’s only a small minority who are at these parties.”
The Amsterdam-based Mainline agency, who are considered world leaders in chemsex harm reduction, quote one of their 42-year-old clients as saying: “The effect of slamming is very intense, and for me is the equivalent to freedom. No hassle with condoms, HIV status or hepatitis C, and I feel liberated from past sexual issues.”
In the Slamming Dos And Don’ts booklet they hand out in clubs and saunas, the agency explain that, “Chems like Tina (crystal meth), ketamine, mephedrone and new substances like 3-mmc, mxe and 4-mec are being injected before or during sex sessions. The rush of slamming is euphoric and sexually stimulating. All inhibition is lost and sex lasts longer. Chems increase self-confidence, concentration and energy levels, but slamming is also risky. It can lead to paranoid thoughts, hallucinations, delusions and panic attacks.”
SEXUAL ASSAULT: Over in the UK, their PIP PAC counterparts are supplying £3.99 ‘safer injecting and sex packs’, comprising of fixed needle syringes, alcohol prep pads, spoons with filters, a measuring syringe, tooting straws, anal lubricant, a GHB/GBL Intro Guide, condoms, vitamin pills – most chemsex drugs act as an appetite suppressant – and latex-free gloves, to be worn while fisting. Packs are also handed out for free in parks and forests, where chemsex takes place either outside or in cars or vans.
“It’s understood that there are many Chemsex parties taking place in Ireland each weekend,” the Director of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, Tony Duffin reflects. “The risks people may take, knowingly or unknowingly, at chemsex parties is of concern to us. Engaging in chemsex can result in significant and chronic health problems for some people; minimising the risks is essential and will save lives and taxpayers money.
“At chemsex parties people are at risk of STIs, blood borne viruses and overdose,” he continues. “We must ensure that people who decide to attend a chemsex party have the best information, advice and equipment that will keep them healthy and alive. For example, up-to-date harm reduction info and advice; sterile injecting equipment; sterile snorting equipment and an abundance of condoms is vital. The Ana Liffey Drug Project will work with people involved in the chemsex culture to ensure that they are a safe as they can be.”
The chemsex scene has spawned its own glossary of terms such as “booty bump”, which is injecting into the anus with a needle-less syringe; “PnP”, which is App shorthand for Party and Play and “bug chasers” – who, scarily, are people actively looking to contract HIV.
“I imagine quite a few of your readers just did a double-take when they read that,” Dr. Adam Winstock said when contacted again this week by Hot Press. “I’ve had some really heavy conversations with gay men who have significant internalised homophobia. They very often come from strict Catholic backgrounds and put themselves in extreme risk situations where contracting HIV is almost inevitable. For them, that’s both the punishment and the sin. One patient said to me, ‘I’m only going to change my fucking behaviour when I get HIV. I know then that I’ll have to get healthy’.
“The media has tended to portray chemsex as a new phenomenon involving a single group of people, but it’s not,” he continues. “I’ve met guys in their 40s and 50s who’ve been running parties for 15 years. They have a registrar at the front door who asks your name, what drugs you’re on and what/when your last dose was. There’s always a named first-aider, who’s either a health care professional or trained in how to put somebody in the recovery position, and picks up their syringes and puts them in a sharps box. That’s entirely different to the more extreme events you read about.”
While your teeth and your insides won’t thank you for taking Tina – “meth bladder” is apparently a thing – GHB is taken in such small quantities that it’s almost inevitable that regular users will at some point overdose on it. At €9 a vial it’s cheap and available for anyone to order online, with India and China being the main producers.
“Our number one piece of advice to people is, ‘Use a syringe to measure your own dosage of GHB’,” Adam Winstock resumes. “There’s only a tiny difference between a dose that gets you high and horny and one that causes you to black out. By tiny I mean 0.5ml too much, so under no circumstances swig from the bottle. One in six men using GBH report on occasion passing out, which means there’s also a risk of sexual assault. You’ve said ‘no unprotected sex’ and come to discover that somebody’s fucked you without using a condom. I have a patient who only found out what had happened to him at a party when a video was posted onto the darknet without his consent.
“If you use G for a couple of days, don’t overdose, and take a break, it’s relatively safe. Use it constantly, though, for a fortnight and you start running the risk of withdrawal, which when not done through proper detox is highly unpleasant.”
Consent is something, which also concerns the Gay Switchboard Ireland’s Adam Shanley.
“It’s important to understand what consent is,” he resumes. “I’ve heard stories about guys who’d say, ‘I went to a sex party, I took too much G, and it feels like somebody had sex with me whilst under. I was there, though, so it wasn’t rape’. Yes, it was rape!”
Wanting to encourage debate of that and other key issues, Shanley recently organised a screening of Vice magazine’s Chemsex documentary in the Lighthouse Cinema, as part of the GAZE LGBT Film Festival.
“Two hundred people got a front-seat look at the more extreme side of chemsex in London, which is the epicentre of this phenomenon,” Shanley explains. “Most of the participants in the documentary were HIV+ and it also dealt with the psychotic episodes and other mental health issues that arise from the extended use of chemsex drugs. What I found particularly interesting was the motivations people have for getting involved, which often revolve around loneliness and intimacy.
“The next day I brought together as many of the sexual health and drug addiction services as I could for a training session, so everyone has the same understanding of what’s involved. The overall theme being, ‘What do we need to start doing together?’ You can see from the film that, in London at the moment, they’re overwhelmed. We need to be ahead of the curve. Moralising and finger-pointing don’t work, harm reduction does.”
It’d be a mistake, says Shanley, to solely regard chemsex as being a gay issue.
“At the moment, it’s the homosexual community that’s disproportionately affected by chemsex, but the evidence from London and further afield is that there are also plenty of heterosexual people indulging in it, who face the same health risks,” he suggests. Shanley has been working in tandem with the After Party Service, whose 2014 survey found that 33% of gay/bisexual men and 22.9% of gay/bisexual women in the UK use illicit drugs. The comparative figures for heterosexual men and women are 11.1% and 5.1%.
Chemsex directors William Fairman and Max Gogerty found one aspect of the phenomenon particularly surprising. “What started as a look into a ‘healthcare emergency’, soon evolved into a complex revelation,” they said in a joint statement. “It wasn’t the sex or the drugs that shocked. Neither was it the danger or the consequences. It was the realisation that, for the majority of people, it was intimacy and not lust nor hedonism that was the driving force behind their behavior. The decision to turn a camera on this subject came from seeing first-hand how this community were starting to respond to this crisis.”
Also getting a lot of media attention is Stars, Cars And Crystal Meth, a warts and even more warts memoir by Jack Sutherland, who’s been a PA and bodyguard to the likes of Michael Stipe, RuPaul and Mickey Rourke.
“You only need to get on Grindr or any other sex App, there’s always someone looking for a chem hook-up, no matter what time or day of the week,” he told the Standard newspaper. “People come to London to be gay. A lot of them are young and naïve and get caught up in drugs, which are relatively inexpensive and accessible. It’s glamorous: hot bodies, no shirts on in a club and then 10 hours of what they call a chill-out. My understanding is that excessive amounts of crystal meth and GHB create about 2,600 whatever levels of dopamine. A normal sexual encounter is less than 10% of that. It’s such an extreme that this isn’t even going to register.”
The last word goes to Dr. Adam Winstock who says: “We did a survey asking: ‘Which of the following drugs have you had sex on over the last year?’ and, of course, number one was alcohol. We then asked, ‘What’s the worst drug to have sex on?’ and, again, it was alcohol. So, chemsex is also going to the pub, getting pissed and getting laid.”