The New Zealand Drug Foundation’s Samuel Andrews examines the use of Meth in the wider gay community and in the Chemsex scene.
P, Tina, Ice – we have many names for methamphetamine. Most of what we know comes from provocative news stories that focus on ‘record meth seizures’ or harrowing tales of addiction. It also has a different narrative within the gay community, where it is often used in a sexual setting known as chemsex or party/puff ‘n’ play.
Not everything we hear is true through.
Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant drug that releases large amounts of dopamine (pleasure chemicals in the brain) – increasing alertness, energy, focus and sex drive for around eight hours. Mood swings, racing heart, inability to sleep and agitation are also common. High levels of use are usually followed by a severe comedown, bringing exhaustion, low mood, hunger, difficulty concentrating and agitation. Some people who use methamphetamine will experience addiction, but not everyone. Having positive things such as connection with community, strong social networks and work can help to protect against this.
In NZ, use of methamphetamine has remained relatively consistent with just below 1% of adults having used it in the past year (2017/18 Health Survey). While this may seem low at a national level, it’s understood there are pockets of higher use in certain regions.
The gay community has higher levels of meth use, as it does with all drugs. Recent research found around 5% of gay and bisexual men had used methamphetamine in the past six months, and rates in Australia are about twice that of NZ.
Using methamphetamine in a sexual context brings additional risk of harm from HIV or other sexually transmitted infections, with the possibility of non-consensual sex, violence and overdose. More so when taking part in chemsex, a particularly intense form of sexualised drug use characterised by the use of methamphetamine and GHB in a group sex setting, often hosted in private homes via hook-up apps.
here are many reasons people engage in chemsex – as with any drug use. Most men report seeking pleasure and new experiences, as well as connection and community. Interviews with gay and bisexual men in the UK found half of them had experienced harm – most commonly because of the enormous amount of time chemsex takes up can impact work and other commitments. With more readily available HIV prevention drug PrEP, regular sexual health checks and better harm reduction advice around drug use, these risks can be reduced. The chemsex page on EndingHIV.org.nz has some tips on this.
A recent positive example of harm reduction in practice is the Rewired group, organised in partnership with NZAF, Odyssey House and the NZ Drug Foundation. Participants described the programme as “an informative group for gay men who engage in chemsex or are worried about risky situations”. Over eight weeks, the group explored the challenges of contemporary gay life, finding connection, learning strategies to be safer and reflecting on who they wanted to be. It is clear methamphetamine is a challenge for the community and the more we can talk about our daily challenges, provide more supportive gay spaces and reduce stigma around seeking help, the healthier we can be.
Keep an eye out for the next round of Rewired.
For support and information around drug use call the Alcohol and Drug Helpline 0800 787 797