Dangerous industrial cleaner linked to rising popularity of ‘chemsex’

Use of drugs to enhance sexual pleasure is suspected over sharp rise in HIV, syphilis and gonorrhoea

A drug normally used as an industrial cleaner for removing graffiti is playing a major role in the emergence of a “chemsex” scene in Dublin, according to a new study.

GHB, which is also used to polish alloy wheels, is the most widely used drug for enhancing sexual pleasure during chemsex sessions, the study of attendees of the Gay Men’s Health Clinic at Baggot Street found.

The growing popularity of chemsex, which involves the use of recreational drugs to enhance sexual pleasure during risky sex, is suspected as the cause of a sharp rise in HIV, syphilis and gonorrhoea among men who have sex with men (MSM) in the past year.

One in four attendees at the clinic reported having engaged in chemsex using illegal drugs, the study found.


Lost consciousness

One in four also said either they or their sexual partners lost consciousness during the experience.

While mephedrone, cocaine, ketamine and crystal meth were also abused, GHB was the most commonly used drug, the survey of almost 500 men found.

Half said they met their partners through phone apps and one-third reported having had more than 10 sexual partners in the previous 12 months.

Most of those who reported chemsex behaviour said they enjoyed their sexual activity and felt in control of it, but one-quarter said it was impacting negatively on them.

Public health doctor Ronan Glynn said chemsex was of concern because of the risk of dependency, overdoses and death resulting from illegal drug use, and also because it was linked to risky sexual behaviour leading to HIV and other infections.

Dr Glynn stressed that the survey population was not representative of the entire MSM population.

It was not certain that chemsex was the cause of the rise in sexually transmitted infections and further research was needed, he said.

Dr Eamon Keenan, HSE national clinical lead for addiction services, said GHB was easily abused, and even a small amount taken over a few weeks could cause dependency.

The drug disrupted sleep patterns and users often had to wake every two hours to take it.

Extreme agitation

Also known as GBL or simply “G”, the drug gave rise to seizures, hallucinations, extreme agitation and was easy to overdose on.

However, it was used increasingly in the chemsex scene for its euphoria-inducing and disinhibiting properties.

Dr Keenan said the drug has been associated with a number of deaths, while five patients who were addicted required admission to detox services in Beaumont Hospital in the last year. It has also been linked to date rape incidents.

GHB is banned for use as an ingested drug but can still be bought as an industrial cleaner, he said.

A bottle of the substance can be purchased easily online for under €100 and, when broken down into smaller measures, can be sold for a total of €4,000.

School students today have a very “blasé” attitude to drugs and drugtaking compared to a previous generation, Dr Keenan also said.

For many, their pattern of going out involved drinking early on and then taking tablets later, even though they might not know what exactly the pills contained.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times