30 Jan 2014

Is crystal meth behind London’s rising HIV levels?

Crystal meth use in the UK is extremely low. But the drug’s popularity among gay men in London, where it is increasingly used at sex parties, means it is being linked to a worrying rise in HIV.

Crystal meth has long seemed the distant scourge of other countries, from the deprived suburbs on the west coast of America, to the slums of South Africa, writes Cordelia Lynch. In the Czech Republic, where it’s linked with prostitution, it’s a bigger problem than heroin.

But here in the UK, the police will tell you it’s not a big worry. Home Office figures from 2012 showed 17,000 people aged 16-59 in England and Wales took methamphetamine – fewer than any other drug recorded.

But there is one small sub-group it is having a disproportionate effect on: gay men on the extreme end of the party scene in London, where it’s being linked to a worrying rise in HIV.

Read more: do we care if people take drugs?

Focused in London

The drug can be smoked, snorted and swallowed, but increasing numbers of gay men in the capital are injecting it, sharing needles and combing it with other drugs and high-risk sexual activity. It’s often taken at “chill-outs” and sex parties, organised on social networking sites, where men engage in sex with a number of different people.

This is a very small proportion of the gay population in the UK and focused mainly in the capital, but there are anecdotal signs it’s spreading to Manchester and Leeds.

It is a sensitive and difficult issue to raise, but health professionals are worried. They believe crystal meth use may be linked to a sharp spike in HIV diagnoses, hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted infections.

Dr Owen Boden Jones who works at a specialist clinic at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital says he thinks the situation is already a “public health nightmare.”

‘Chem sex’

On a global scale, crystal meth use in the UK is extremely low. However, specialist clinics say they’re “overwhelmed” with the number of methamphetamine users coming through their doors.

A new report compiled by the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine recently revealed three times as many gay and bisexual men in London inject drugs than in England as a whole. The analysis also found that four times as many use crystal meth in the capital than across the rest of the country.

Antidote, a drug and alcohol project which works with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in London, has also provided some interesting data.

In 2006, just five of its 249 service users (2 per cent) presented with methamphetamine use as their main problem.

In 2010, 187 of 553 service users (34 per cent) had meth as their main problem, with a further 78 people (14 per cent) reporting its use in addition to another substance they had difficulties with.

Antidote staff also work in two specialist London clinics, CODE and the Club Drug Clinic. At the CODE clinic, the proportion of methamphetamine and mephedrone users who inject rose from 30 per cent in 2011 to 70 per cent in 2012.

This data must be treated with caution – it may reflect greater awareness of the clinics which only provide for a limited number of individuals. However, David Stuart who now works at 56 Dean Street Clinic in London says the problem of crystal meth use and “chem sex” needs to be addressed.

At the heart of the problem, he says, are issues around self-esteem, intimacy, sexual identity and internalised homophobia.