Max Pemberton

Tina: the drug devastating the gay community

Tina: the drug devastating the gay community
Text settings

Something is ravaging through the gay community, leaving death and misery in its wake, yet few are willing to talk about it. If I’d written that sentence a generation ago, I’d have been referring to the Aids crisis. But this time the enemy isn’t a virus, but a substance called ‘tina’ or ‘ice’. It is a methamphetamine – a stimulant drug that is either smoked or injected into the veins. Tina is also called crystal meth, made famous by the Netflix series Breaking Bad. It causes a rapid increase in dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, which leads to euphoria, alertness, energy and self-confidence. It also triggers an almost insatiable increase in libido. It’s easy to see the appeal.

But the downsides are horrific. The effects on the heart and central nervous system can lead to seizures, heart attack, stroke, dangerously high body temperature, difficulty breathing, kidney failure, coma and even death. When tina is mixed with other drugs, the likelihood of an adverse reaction and possible overdose increases greatly. It is often taken with GHB, a clear liquid drunk to offset agitation – another tina side-effect.

Two people from my friendship group have died from the drug’s effects. Both were in their twenties. Tina also causes psychiatric complications including acute psychosis, paranoia, insomnia and depression. Working in A&E in central London covering mental health, I have seen dozens of men who have taken the drug and gone mad. One tried to castrate himself while in the throes of psychosis. Another, convinced his friends were plotting to murder him, barricaded himself into his flat, only to then throw himself out of a window when they managed to break the door down. It’s common for gay men to come to A&E pleading for sleeping pills because they haven’t slept for days.

Tina sits in the middle of a phenomenon known as ‘chemsex’. Most gay men will know at least one person involved in this scene. Using hook-up apps such as Grindr, gay men seek out drug-fuelled parties – typically called ‘chillouts’ – where men meet to consume tina and other drugs, and have sex.

But this is no 1970s-style era of free love. It is a tragic, bleak world. There are sex parties happening every night in London and other major British cities. As you read this, there will be gay men sitting somewhere, naked, smoking tina and having sex. The curtains will be drawn, and between sexual encounters, these men will be glued to their phones, searching for the next party to move on to or ordering more drugs. The cruel irony of tina is that while it increases the user’s desire for sex, it also prevents them being able to climax. What begins is a bewildering, joyless quest for satisfaction.

Friendship groups narrow as men start to associate predominantly with others who are into chemsex. Chillouts are lonely places. If you log on to any gay hook-up app, you’ll see men with ‘hnh’ in their profile. This stands for ‘high and horny’, but behind these three letters lies a legion of lost souls.

Drugs in gay subculture are nothing new, but tina has formed a devastating grip over the gay community. While it’s been around since the 1990s, it has exploded in the past few years thanks to a number of factors, not least social media and gay hook-up apps. Tina is also hugely addictive – about three times more so than cocaine. Signs of dependency can develop after a single use. It tends not to be a drug people just dabble in. The intensity of the sex is such that many men find it difficult to go back to sober sex. What’s more, the ‘crash’ after the initial euphoria is so unpleasant that tina is often taken in a binge pattern to prolong the high.

Tina has taken hold in the gay community but is largely unknown outside this group. This pattern of use is very different to those in other countries. Elsewhere around the world, tina is a huge problem both for straight and gay people. The difference in who uses it in other countries compared with the UK is a result of economics and geography.

Crystal meth is relatively easy to make. It can be ‘cooked’ by anyone with the equipment and basic chemistry know-how. It is therefore easily homegrown, making it popular in more isolated locations – such as the mid-western US states or countries such as New Zealand – where transporting drugs might be challenging or economically unviable. Asia, Australia and parts of Europe, in particular eastern bloc countries, have been flooded with the drug.

In contrast, the UK has well-established supply lines for stimulant drugs. MDMA, cocaine, mephedrone (a former ‘legal high’ that has been banned but remains very popular) and amphetamines – often termed ‘party drugs’ – are readily available. This means straight people have been less inclined to switch to tina. Better the devil you know.

The disconcerting thing about tina’s use in the gay community is that it isn’t limited to the young and impressionable. At any chemsex party, you’ll see men from every strata of society. The young, the old, the rich and the poor all fall victim to its noxious charm. I’ve been shocked by the number of older gay men I’ve seen using it. In the superficial gay world where looks and youth are hyper-valued and the ageing body reviled, tina offers so much. It assures confidence and a ready supply of desperate and indiscriminate young men to play with. Most people involved in chemsex will have stories about young men, barely conscious and unable to consent, being passed around at parties. You’d think gay men, who have enough people in the world who hate us, would be able to show each other a bit more compassion.

But why would men try this drug in the first place? There’s no doubt that the way it affects sexual activity is a big pull. But there’s an element of bleak self-destruction and annihilation that comes with it, which hints at something darker. While gay men have equal rights, there still exists a pervasive homophobia in our culture. If you talk to the men who have fallen into the world of chemsex, it’s hard not to conclude that they are self-medicating away the intense shame and fear that comes with being gay.

While gay men living in cosmopolitan cities might have found some sort of community, many spent the formative parts of their youth in less forgiving environments. The scars run deep. In his book The Velvet Rage, psychotherapist Dr Alan Downs argues that growing up in a culture that associates gayness with sin or perversion causes an enduring psychological damage. It results in a community obsessed with sex, image and pleasure. It’s easy to see how tina has found a home within this world. But until gay men feel able to love themselves, this evil drug will continue to ravage their community.