Chemsex Invisibility May Explain Missing Meth Use in UK Data

Regular methamphetamine and mephedrone use is nearly nonexistent in the United Kingdom—that is, if you simply rely on the latest 2018/2019 results of the Crime Survey for England and Wales published on September 19 by the Home Office, the ministry that covers law enforcement.

But David Stuart, a London-based social worker who coined “chemsex”—a now-popular phrase describing the sexualized use of drugs like meth, meph and GHB in queer communities—told Filter that the survey could be overlooking this marginalized population, noting that “heterosexual meth use” is not “of any measurable public health concern as yet.”

“This survey can be summed up by one very single and simple finding: Our government has no idea what is going on,” said Stuart.

The survey results reported that zero percent of more than 23,000 respondents aged 16 to 59 used meth and meph within the last year. The Home Office doesn’t quite claim that meth use doesn’t exist—it estimates that 1,000 households out of the entire 50 million population of England and Wales had taken meth in the last year, and the same number had used meph in the last year—but even these tiny estimates were buried deep in the report.

The survey could well be under-counting people who participate in chemsex, suggested Stuart. For one, a respondent must go through a face-to-face interview before they can answer drug use questions, usually on the interviewer’s laptop. Stuart is skeptical that people who regularly use meth would even be participating in this. Although he “can imagine you completing a drug use survey, even if you had used meth last week,” he still “can’t imagine many people doing that, honestly, reflectively, objectively.” Stuart added that “if you used meth yesterday, you would not be completing a survey today,” especially since days-long stimulant binges are known to be followed by severe crashes. “You’d have or other things to do, to prioritize.”

Stuart, who established London’s first chemsex support services, has even explored the issue of queer male participants’ engagement with surveys. On a welcome form for a clinic, he asked around “1,200 gay men” whether they had “ever completed an online survey about drug use and sex.” According to him, only “two said, ‘Yes'”—and “approximately 40 didn’t answer” the question at all.

“I know why,” said Stuart. “Their lives are complicated, with a lot of coping and management. Responding to a household survey from the Crime Prevention department of their government was not high on their ‘getting-through-the-week’ list.”

The survey also does not account for people who are unhoused. Of over 600 men who have sex with men in London and Bristol, cities with active chemsex scenes, around 10 percent were found to be unstably housed, according to a study conducted by University of College London researchers from 2015 to 2018. More broadly, young queer and trans people in the UK are more likely to be homeless than their non-LGBTQ peers, constituting nearly a quarter of the overall youth homeless population

While the Home Office recognizes that there are “operational challenges of obtaining information from respondents on self-declared drug use,” it also says that “the CSEW provides a good and robust way to measure general population prevalence of drug use.” In contrast, Stuart believes that the “findings are awfully ignorant.”


Screenshot from documentary “Chemsex” via Youtube

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