If you’ve read the news, you may be under the impression that methamphetamine (‘crystal’ or ‘ice’) is a brain destroying, highly addictive toxin which turns users into psychotic thugs. But amongst gay club scenes in Melbourne and Sydney, it’s just a regular party drug.
This is the finding of the first FLUX study undertaken by the Kirby Institute, which surveyed over 2000 gay men about their experiences with drug use. The survey found that despite high rates of methamphetamine use amongst gay men, there appear to be very low rates of drug dependency and drug associated harm.
Over a quarter of gay men surveyed had used crystal methamphetamine in their lifetime and 1 in 6 had used the drug within the previous six months.
The experiences of gay men who used crystal were overwhelmingly positive, with the majority not ascribing any dependency or harm from their recreational use. Of those who did indicate some harmful consequences from drug use, the most common harm identified was unprotected sex.
If you are to believe the media accounts of meth use in Australia, these statistics will come as a bit of a shock. Aren’t we caught in the grip of an ‘ice epidemic’? Isn’t methamphetamine one the ‘most addictive substances on earth’?
The moral panic surrounding methamphetamine use has been one of the most unhelpful media trends in the last decade, and something of a thorn in the side of policy and public health experts advocating for a harm reduction approach.
That isn’t to say there is no harm associated with crystal use – far from it – but there is a great deal of misinformation being propagated by journalists, politicians and ‘concerned citizens’ about the nature of such harm.
Despite reports of a dramatic increase in methamphetamine users in Australia, the percentage of regular ice users has remained steady for over a decade at around 2%. There has however been a significant increase in the number of ice users seeking treatment for dependency as well as an increase in the number of hospitalisations as a result of ice related overdose and psychosis.
These harms can be connected to an increase in drug purity, as well as more frequent ice use amongst drug users. For example, there are indications that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of weekly and daily ice users.
The reasons why gay men appear less impacted from their use of crystal, is likely the result of its designation as a ‘party drug’ Amongst participants in the Flux survey, very few participants were weekly users and even fewer were taking the drug daily.
So what lessons can be learned from this? First of all, the survey indicates that public health messages which focus on a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to drug use are unlikely to have an impact on gay men, who don’t see any obvious harm from their occasional use of crystal.
Moreover, it indicates that interventions for ice-related harms across Australia need to target the particular reasons behind heavy methamphetamine use. Researchers are beginning to paint a pretty good picture of the heavy ice user: mid-twenties, male, with a complicated mix of mental and physical health problems.
Finally, the survey appears to bust a particularly pernicious myth about the gay club scene – which, due to increased rates of drug use is often depicted as inherently harmful and self-destructive.
If anything, patterns of drug behaviour within the gay scene are demonstrating responsible, safe, recreational drug use. From a harm reduction perspective, this pattern of behaviour is something to be encouraged amongst users of methamphetamine across the country.