In June 2016, I threw myself into an immersive theatre…
The way we use, buy and share drugs has changed dramatically in the past few decades. The digital dealer is increasingly common, but is this evolution leading us to greater highs or more hellish lows, asks Stewart Who?
The internet already offers a million ways to shoot your load, share your dribble and blow your brains. Unless we return to parchment, quills and witchcraft, digital drug dabbling is where we’re heading. In fact, that train left the station some time ago.
The 2013 Global Drug Survey found 22% of users reporting they’d bought chemicals online. This may not put your local dealer out of business tomorrow, but proves it’s not just Waitrose and Amazon who’re doing home deliveries.
Twenty years ago, it was still common to score drugs in venues. The legendary Turnmills in Farringdon often boasted an orderly queue to see the dealer. At most events, if you couldn’t locate the cocky geezer in a shell suit, he soon found you.
Magnetically attracted, within minutes, you’d be in a toilet cubicle, watching a wired wide boy yank a bag of pills from his pants. As you fingered a sweat sodden wallet, he might suggest a ‘buy five, get one free’ offer, while you wondered if he had bisexual tendencies. Ah, the good ol’ days.
GBL and Google
Those lively transactions aren’t entirely history, but police operations, CCTV and regulated security staff have reduced club dealing to a fool’s game. It’s too risky. Today, the internet is the biggest facilitator of such enterprise and requires no small talk or cash, just Wi-Fi and a credit card.
Type ‘buy GBL’ into Google and it’s like perusing hotels on TripAdvisor. Hours can be lost to a dizzying choice of forum opinions and commercial choices. One site offers HGH (Human Growth Hormone), injectable steroids and GBL by the litre. That, my friends is gayer than Liza Minnelli on a unicorn- and way more dangerous.
Mike Power is the author of ‘Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High’. The book is a brilliant account of the history of illegal and legal drugs, their production, supply and consumption. Asked to predict the consequences of our online appetite for chemicals, Power is cautious in his response:
“It’s easy to be alarmist, and newspapers and politicians do love that, but it damages credibility and increases harm. The most factual response is that the net result of this wave of new drugs will be more people get high, in more ways, from more drugs, than has ever been seen in human history. That’s just a fact.
“The real challenge we face is in adapting and generating policy to reflect the new chemical realities, and to keep people alive, since each new drug we ban produces a more unknown alternative.”
In his book, Power charts how mephedrone was spawned by laboratory swots as a chemical riposte to @a global MDMA shortage”. Large amounts of safrole oil (a chemical used to make ecstasy) were seized by the UN in Cambodia in 2008, effectively arresting pill production.
This action saved thousands of trees, but ultimately, paved the way for ‘meow meow’. Coincidentally, UK cocaine purity fell from 60% in 1999 to 22% in 2009 and about half of Ecstasy pills seized in 2009 contained no MDMA.
Lack of ecstasy
In 2010, almost all ecstasy pills seized in the UK contained no MDMA. This will come as no surprise to anyone who skulled an E and found themselves frowning at the DJ and unlikely to hug anybody, let alone dance on a podium.
It’s no wonder clubbers embraced mephedrone with gusto- it gave them a high distinctly lacking elsewhere. According to the British Crime Survey, 300,000 people in the UK report using mephedrone in the last year (as opposed to 0 in 2006).
Cruising for highs
Alternatively, you can get high pretty sharpish by looking for ‘romance’ on any of the cruising apps found on most gay smartphones. After conducting an entirely unscientific survey, it seems that a query regarding ‘chems’ will enter the conversation within the space of four messages.
Nobody wants to drop acid or smoke a bong; it’s always the unholy trinity of mephedrone, G and crystal meth.
Barebacking and crack pipes
According to data from Antidote, the LGBT substance use service; 99% of crystal meth users, 75% of mephedrone users and 85% of GBL users are taking the drug solely to facilitate sex. These substances are rather misleadingly referred to as ‘party’ drugs.
Forget DJs, martinis and mirrorballs, it’s not THAT kinda party. Think syringes, barebacking, pipettes and crack pipes. David Stuart, Substance Use Lead at 56 Dean Street isn’t entirely optimistic about the potential havoc these habits might bring to the table.
“These drugs serve a beautiful purpose for gay men, and will be around for a long while, increasing in harms and chaos; these drugs can turn dancing queens into injecting, homeless, unhappy people, not unlike what we’ve seen with straight heroin and crack users.”
The LGBT community is infamous for enjoying ‘adolescent’ hedonism way beyond an age that many deem wise or dignified. ‘Fuck you,’ we say to society, as we dance half naked into our 50s.
We’re fit, fabulous and fun, despite the odd STD and a raft of suicidal comedowns. But, what’s to stop us? Few of us have dependants, our social activities are largely sex-driven, substance fuelled, or both. Facilitating all of this, is the fact that most of us are masters at living an elegantly crafted double life.
Work colleagues and family won’t be wise to excessive partying until it’s too late. If you can veil your queerness when necessary, you can probably hide a meth binge, gonorrhea and a sallow complexion. That’s what Clinique’s Turnaround cream’s for, right?
Dr. Adam Winstock, consultant psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drug Survey has made some astute observations based on stats and presentations at his clinic.
‘There’s a generation in their 40s and 50s who feel there’s nothing wrong with a cheeky gram of coke at the weekend. However, as they’re lacking the physical reserves of their youth, they’re more vulnerable to dropping dead from a coke induced heart attack than those in their 20s.’
Winstock worked on the medical team at Sydney’s Mardi Gras, where most casualties were G related. He admits that the gym-toned bodies of many queens left him feeling out of shape, but seriously questions what lies beneath the muscled façade.
Presented with the argument that gay men are liable to be fitter than their straight counterparts of the same age, Dr Winstock was quick to puncture that bubble.
“The LGBT community take loads more stimulant drugs, often in a more risky manner than heterosexuals and the range is much wider. There’s an incompatibility in taking such care of yourself and then trashing it so spectacularly.”
Dr Owen Bowden-Jones is a Consultant in Addiction Psychiatry and Honorary Senior Lecturer at Imperial College in the Division of Brain Science. In 2010, he founded the Club Drug Clinic, the UK’s largest multi-disciplinary service for people using ‘legal highs’ and ‘club drugs’.
When questioned on current trends and likely outcomes, Bowden-Jones speaks from experience on the front line.
“For ketamine (users) we are seeing severe bladder damage and memory impairments, for mephedrone, many users, particularly injectors are experiencing brief psychotic episodes. GHB/GBL is leading to severe dependence and withdrawal, as well as the risk of overdose. Finally, methamphetamine, particularly in the context of sex parties, is leading people to put themselves at risk in ways they often regret later.”
The most popular drugs for gay men in 2005 were Ecstasy and cocaine, seemingly quaint indulgences when compared to today’s crop of stimulants. Okay, back then, people might have got blisters from dancing too much and jaw ache from gurning, but tourniquets, bloody needles and raw gangbangs weren’t really on the menu.
Antidote data suggests that 80% of crystal meth and mephedrone users are now injecting in a sexual context (a rise from 20% in 2011). Eight years ago, crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB/GBL were responsible for only 3% of all presentations at their clinics.
Last year, crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB/GBL were responsible for 85% of all Antidote presentations. Anecdotal evidence suggests a growing fetishisation of shared body fluids and intravenous drug use, colloquially known as ‘slamming’.
What is unknown at the present time is if such behaviour will remain an extreme subculture, or whether it has the potential to go pop.
Bowden-Jones is wary of predicting a trajectory, but points out that, “drugs are normalised in the gay community, endemic even, so there is potential for the community to be destroyed.”
That may seem like a dramatic statement, but it’s a salient point. There are plenty of cities around the world that once boasted vibrant gay scenes. Today, they’re ghosts of their former selves, hollowed out by online sex and the aforementioned chemical culprits.
It’s a familiar pattern; the bars start to close, club nights start to dwindle and eventually, the busiest venue in town becomes the GUM clinic.
Bowden-Jones suggests the community might be lacking in socio-cultural stability. “People often really struggle to come up with role models, or people they look up to, who don’t take drugs”.
He suggests we should consider young gay people, who burst onto the scene, become gripped by sex apps and quickly find themselves in a loveless fast lane.
“If your idea of intimacy is entirely related to drug use, how will achieve you intimacy without drugs?”
Risks of regulation
It’s clear that if there is a solution to this raft of issues, it won’t be found in tighter regulation or policing. Mike Power observes wryly:
“Today, if you want to shut the net down, you’ll cripple business. Land and sea borders cannot be policed: we are an island nation and tonnes of cocaine enter every year and that’s been banned for a century – so what hope for banning new drugs that chemists produce specifically to circumvent national and international legislation?
“People cannot be policed: We have a system of law that threatens to and indeed does jail those who alter their consciousness and millions still do, every day. The war on drugs seems to be counterproductive, since every move prohibitionists make to tackle the problem, as they see it, leads to new drugs and possibly new harms. A better solution, in my view, is to reduce the harms of all drug use through education and tentative steps towards harm reduction.”
It appears that here in the UK, we’re hedging our bets with a foot in both camps. Legislation purports to protect us from ourselves but could leave users with a criminal record, while services such as those offered 56 Dean Street and Bowden-Jones’ Club Drug Clinic offer wisdom and treatment, both free from judgment.
More powerful that either of those options is the respect we have for ourselves, both as a community and as individuals. Unfortunately, that takes hard work. The buzz that comes from healthy self-esteem isn’t available in pill form and can’t be smoked in a pipe or injected.
First published in Attitude July 2013