Don't believe the hype: study finds that few UK gay men use methamphetamine

Michael Carter
Published: 27 April 2006

Few gay men in the United Kingdom use the recreational drug methamphetamine (crystal meth), according the results of a large annual survey. The National Gay Men’s Sex Survey conducted by the Terrence Higgins Trust and Sigma Research found that 3% of gay men had used the drug at any time during the previous year, and that fewer than 1% of gay men were regular users of the drug. Greater usage of methamphetamine was found amongst HIV-positive men, with HIV-infected men with over 30 sexual partners reporting the highest level of use.

Methamphetamine use has been linked to risky sexual behaviour, an increased risk of HIV acquisition and faster HIV disease progression in studies from the United States. Concern was expressed that use of methamphetamine in the UK was increasing when a study conducted amongst gay men using gyms in central London in 2004 found that 20% had used methamphetamine.

However, the results from this latest survey seem to show that these fears are unfounded. Over 15,000 men completed the National Gay Men’s sex survey in 2005, and the results show that 427 men (3%) used methamphetamine once in the previous year, and that fewer than 50 of these men were regular users of the drug.

“These data give us a clear baseline of gay men’s use of this drug for the first time ever”, said Will Nutland, Head of Health Promotion at the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s largest HIV charity. He added, “recent media portrayals have given the impression that crystal meth use is widespread as is driving the HIV epidemic in the UK. These data provide us with the first reliable snap shot of what is really happening."

Higher rates of methamphetamine use were, however, found amongst gay men living in London, with 7% reporting use of the drug at least once during the last year. In addition, HIV-positive men in London were even more likely to use the drug, with 20% (150 of 520 individuals) saying they had used it at least once during the previous twelve months.The highest level of methamphetamine use was found amongst HIV-positive men with multiple sexual partners, with over a third saying they had used the drug once (35%, 55 of 158).

Users of methamphetamine also used other recreational drugs, the most common ones being GHB, ketamine, ecstasy, LSD, crack and cocaine. Drug use amongst gay men has been the subject of intensive research and as Ford Hickson of Sigma Research explained, "their health promotion needs are well described."

On April 24th the television channel BBC3 broadcast a progamme, The Trouble with Gay Men, which highlighted the earlier gym-based study which found that one-in-five gay men in the capital had used methamphetamine. This study involved 750 men who used one of six central London gyms popular with gay men. Although the recent BBC documentary and other media reports seized upon this statistic, the study’s investigators' reservations about their findings were not reported.

Professor Jonathan Elford of the City University, who conducted the gyms research, commented at the time of its publication, that although “it shows that while one in five gay men in London have used it, most are infrequent users.”

Further, Prof. Elford’s research found that methamphetamine was only one of several drugs used by gay men taking part in the survey, with 90% reporting the use of other recreational drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine and ketamine. Prof. Elford expressed other cautions about these findings: “Usage in [London] has remained static over the last three years and the levels reported here are nothing like on the scale of crystal methamphetamine usage in the US.”

It is also possible that methamphetamine is the latest in a series of unsubstantiated health fears for gay men, which are being linked to unprotected sex. Will Nutland commented, “crystal is increasingly, and simplistically, being linked in the eyes of the mainstream (and parts of the gay) press, to unsafe sexual behaviour amongst gay men. Just as with the net last year, a bunch of couldn’t-care-less bug chasers the year before and bathhouses in the 80s, crystal has become the casual explanation for HIV infections amongst gay men.”