“THE SUMS just don’t add up. Preventing one single onward transmission of HIV/AIDS is estimated at somewhere between £500,000 and £1 million in individual health benefits and treatment costs. With nearly 8,000 infections last year, that’s a lot of zeros.”
~ Clint Walters [Founder, Health Initiatives]
When first warned in late 2002 that crystal meth was making significant inroads into London’s gay scene and that MSM needed to be educated about its potential risks to prevent it gaining a foothold, accelerating the spread of HIV and crossing over into the mainstream population, The Terrence Higgins Trust's Will Nutland and Campaign Officer Campbell Parker denied a potential problem existed and declared that, without firm proof to present to the Department of Health to show that meth was starting to take hold, would not be applying to the government for additional funding to raise public awareness via a gay press and media campaign.
Instead, THT compiled a leaflet that did more to promote crystal as a 'wonder sex drug' than a drug to be avoided. In the absence of a fully-funded awareness campaign, meth has since infiltrated the gay scenes of all major UK cities and meth labs are now emerging across England and Wales according to police. Nutland and Campbell had each witnessed the devastating impact of meth up close within their own social circles, yet appallingly neither had seen fit to persuade THT to dip into its £20m+ war chest for the £30,000 or so needed to fund an intensive campaign around its potentially severe risks.
The evidence they said they needed finally emerged in April 2006 with publication of the 2004 Gay Men's Sex Survey (GMSS). Commissioned by THT with government funding to evaluate its own performance - thereby raising questions about its impartiality - and plan new strategies based on emerging trends, for the first time the survey - conducted by academics at Sigma Research, a member of the CHAPS partnership of HIV-related charities headed by (who else?) THT - included questions on meth use. The findings were measured against the responses of 17,267 gay-identified men aged 14 to 72 from all walks of life and from every remote area of the UK as opposed to high-risk sub-groups such as metropolitan party, sauna and sex club-goers.
The core finding - "only 3%" of all gay men who completed the survey in the summer of 2004 used crystal only once or twice in the past 12 months - was seized upon by Nutland in a cynically spun press release that trivialised and downplayed the emerging threat whilst validating and reinforcing THT's non-committal "too-low-to-act" stance.
Regardless of the spin placed on the finding, agreed in collusion between THT and Sigma behind closed doors, 3% of all gay-identified men in the UK is not an insignificant number, equating to approximately 90,000 individuals (assuming 5% of the population to be predominantly gay-identified males who fall within the survey's reach). Therefore 90,000 gay men were at potential risk of contracting HIV when they used meth, even on the odd occasion that most claimed - a finding which, in itself, THT is duty-bound to act upon (as its mandate stated until recently: "To reduce the spread of HIV and STIs and promote good sexual health.") And at least 0.3% of respondents admitted using once or more a week, approximating to 9,000 habitual users - a not insubstantial number of gay men, some of whom face developing severe mental health problems, contracting HIV antibodies and, among those already infected, severe viral complications along with the numerous horrendous side effects associated with abusing meth.
How low is "too low" when 9,000 lives are needlessly at risk in this way? Only 0.55% of the UK population are estimated to be hard drug users, but ignoring that fact does not make it any less of a problem, least of all make it go away. In a 2007 interview, GMFA's Matthew Hodson stated matter-of-factly: "Currently our major advertising campaigns have about £17,000 allocated to cover their print and placement costs. That's only a little more than the estimated cost of treating an HIV-positive person in a year. For our work to be cost effective, each campaign need only delay the HIV infection of three or four people for a year, or of one person for four years. If we prevent just one youngish person from ever becoming infected, the campaign has paid for itself many times over."
This statement alone suggests how high AID$ Inc. UK sets its sights when it comes to fulfilling its remit and serving its community. Were it compassion-led, then most of the 9,000 habitual users - who invariably had little or no idea what meth was when first offered to them – would have had access to a forward-thinking awareness campaign highlighting the considerable risks involved, enabling them to make an informed choice and resulting in far less than the total estimated number of gay meth users in the UK - around 100,000, according to Sigma - risking exposure to the sexually disinhibiting effects from just one hit.
Instead they prohibited the plundering of funds collected directly from the hands of gay men at fundraising events to finance such a campaign, opting instead for the cop-out excuse that such funding would have to come from central government. The clear implication is that "charities" such as the THT and GMFA will not act to safeguard gay men's health unless additional external funding is provided from the taxpayer. And even when compelling evidence does emerge to support a claim for such funding, they have shown they will continue to bluster and spin the figures to evade their duty to protect lives. [See Dereliction of Duty]
Not only don't Sigma's findings stand up to scrutiny because people tend not to tell the truth or be upfront when discussing their sex lives or drug taking; they also reveal serious flaws in its question formatting and information-gathering techniques, casting doubt over its integrity as an impartial research organisation.
Critically, the Gay Men's Sex Survey is an intensive, multi-paged document that requires 30 minutes or so of total concentration to be completed; possibly the last activity a speeding meth user with a low or non-existent attention span would voluntarily participate in. That Sigma recorded that most of its respondents who used meth did so only once or sparingly proves that most habitual users indeed fell outside of the scope of Sigma's information-gathering techniques. Clinical research has established conclusively that many users are unable to use crystal once or in controlled moderation, yet Sigma falsely claims to reveal the full extent of meth use among gay men in the UK, with most supposedly using only once or twice a year - itself a finding that flies in the face of established clinical research.
Furthermore, Sigma doesn't take into account the chronic levels of denial common among meth users, nor does it allow for respondents who may have simply lied or been unforthcoming about the true extent of their usage due to shame, guilt or fear of being judged by their peers, rendering the core group of users which such flawed surveys set out to identify largely unreachable. The genuine level of meth usage among gay men in the UK therefore remains undetermined, albeit significantly higher than the misleading 3% figure seized upon by AID$ Inc. to whitewash the truth.
While Sigma's survey did reveal that the percentage for all gay men using meth in London in the 12 month period more than doubled to 7%, this is still a long way short of subsequent surveys that have targeted gay urban men who are more likely to come into contact with the drug:
• Up to 20% of London scene-goers (i.e. gay gyms, clubs, saunas, etc.) were found by a University of London study to have used crystal between 2003-05, while a 2006 survey based on a similar sample found that 10% of all gay men - scene-goers and non-scene-
goers alike - had used, prompting City University's Jonathan Elford to urge: "Health promotion and awareness campaigns around crystal meth must focus on the gay club scene to have maximum impact."
• Newsstand magazine AXM was "astonished" to discover from its 2006 readers survey that 18% of its trendy, mainly under-30 metropolitan readership had used meth in the preceding 12 months, making a mockery of flippant comments by Gay Times' self-appointed "drugs czar", Richard Smith, who around the same time described meth in the UK as a "phantom menace".
"'God help London if [crystal] ever hits here,' said QX of crystal in 1997. But just one look at Vauxhall ten years later is enough to tell you that crystal has arrived. Does London now need help? By 2010 we'll know one way or the other."
~ QX Magazine [April 2007]
"If we have learnt anything about the national drug habit since the term 'recreational drugs' was first introduced into the lingua franca, it is that where gay clubbers lead, straight youth soon follows."
~ Paul Flynn [The Times]
(By 2009, Sigma's cosy alliance with THT was discreditted when funds for its gay men's sex surveys were withdrawn, bringing to a halt the duplicity of HIV sector cartels that cynically sought to manipulate and misrepresent the others' data to mutual advantage.)
Aggregate figures collated from the 2005, 2006 and 2007 GMSS surveys record that 5% of all participants used crystal meth at least once in the preceding 12 months - a staggering 66% rise in users compared to the 2004 survey.
Gay Surrey is a charity offering information on the county's social scene, youth programs, health issues and support pages. "We constantly keep updated with issues surrounding the gay community and was made aware of the increasing problems surrounding crystal meth," says its Chairman, Gino Meriano. "We took on board the time and energy to find out more about this awful drug and how it affects our local community and the UK as a whole. From extensive research it was made apparent that the only organisation truly dedicated to helping the cause was LIFE OR METH."
Gay Surrey supported LIFE OR METH by creating a dedicated page on its website to monitor the kind of response it would receive in its campaign for a better understanding and increased awareness of crystal. "After only one month, it became obvious that this was a major concern for all of us," says Gino. "The LIFE OR METH page jumped to first place under the support pages, a staggering result and proving the need for more support from organisations in Surrey and around the UK about how dangerous, harmful and life threatening crystal meth is. We need all the help we can get to send a message out to the community and organisations that this serious issue must be addressed immediately."
Most worrying of all, however, were the 2004 GMSS findings that THT didn't publicise: namely, the 20% of all HIV+ MSM in London who used crystal in the preceding 12 months.
This figure skyrockets to 35% of all HIV+ men with multiple partners - namely those estimated to be among the core 5% or so of all HIVers said to keep a particular community's "viral wildfire" burning. By failing to act on their own funded research, Sigma and THT's unswerving ability for finding agreeable figures among damning statistics makes them complicit in the spread of HIV to negative men who unwittingly link up with - and are being introduced to meth by - the 5% or so core group of promiscuous HIV+ meth users on websites like Gaydar and at THT ‘Play Zone’-endorsed underground sex clubs and saunas, while betraying HIV+ men themselves by withholding vital information about crystal's cancer-like effect on their immune systems. Namely, that it:
• Replicates HIV five to 15-fold in the brain, causing inflammation and accelerated HIV-related dementia;
• Interferes with the efficacy of, and adherence to, AIDS medications;
• Boosts viral loads;
• Depletes T-cells;
...ultimately hastening progression to full-blown AIDS!
Sexual health organisations have a social and moral duty to dispense such vital information, but are negligently failing to do so.
Indeed, it's now being debated whether meth's ravaging effect on the immune system actually replicates many of the symptoms associated with full-
blown AIDS regardless of whether HIV antibodies are present, since some MSM who were thought to be immune to contracting HIV due to a rare protective protein in their cellular make-up have gone on to develop full-blown AIDS since becoming addicted to crystal...
Quite simply the GMSS findings do not bear witness, nor do they equate with the personal or anecdotal experiences of the average gay urban scene-goer, and are fraudulently and despicably being used by the THT and Sigma - singing to the same songsheet rather than speaking as independent voices - to trivialise and mask the true extent of crystal usage among at-risk subgroups of gay society exposed to the drug and vulnerable to its detrimental effects. Of its meth findings, Sigma sanctimoniously concludes:
"While crystal may have particularly spectacular addictive qualities, it remains hard to see why it occupies such a large part of the current drugs debate, except by reference to faddishness and the tendency to generate moral panic among both the HIV sector and the media."
"If ever such an agency should be hauled over the coals for front-loading survey questions and distorting and manipulating said results to achieve a pre-determined outcome that complies with the politically correct agenda of their THT paymasters, then it is [Sigma Research]."
- P. Rhoades [Pink Paper letters]
President Benjamin Disraeli famously said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." The virulent spread of crystal meth in gay communities
throughout the UK and out into mainstream society is mirroring exactly what was allowed to occur in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - a precedent that can, like their negligent counterparts before them, be laid squarely at the feet of the THT, GMFA and the now insolvent - and therefore never likely to be held to account - UKC, who have dismissed all mainstream press coverage that has tapped into what is really happening as "hysteria" while vigorously resisting dispensing clearcut information about meth's correlative and causative link with HIV infection and the severe, life-threatening risks it poses to HIV+ users and abusers.
The GMSS lacks scientific credibility because it is representative only of those who opted to take part as opposed to being a randomised cross-sampling of gay men. But AID$ Inc. has long played fast and loose with the facts to suit its agenda and often shown a brazen contempt for the work it is tasked to carry out. The urgency with which the now deceased HIV charity UK Coalition handled its Government-funded 2005 crystal brief to gauge the extent of meth use in London, for example, can be measured by the fact that it did not deliver its findings until March 2007, despite its "benchmark" being based on the responses of a self-selected sample of only 93 gay and bisexual men (among whom over 16% said they administered the drug prior to visiting a sex-on-premises venue while 30% had used at sex parties).
Meanwhile, UKC's ex-Chairman, Stephen Bitti - a veteran of London's wild party scene - saw his salary hiked by vast amounts in recent years, allegedly forced through by himself at board level and contributing to a substantial cash shortfall in UKC's last financial year that resulted in its demise at 5pm on July 25, 2007 and, with it, the death of the highly-regarded Positive Nation magazine which for many HIVers was a friend and lifeline. In a rare display of accountability by an AID$ Inc. executive, Bitti acknowledged that he had made "mistakes" and jumped the sinking ship a month earlier to take a job within the same NHS trusts whose HIV prevention funding he had frittered away advising on sexual health. "I have made errors of judgement. I'm not proud of this," he said. The gay press declined to probe further, but mainstream political magazine Private Eye shed futher light on UKC's closure in August 2007, reporting that in excess of £150,000 of public funds intended to benefit HIVers had been misappropriated or squandered by Bitti, with the likelihood of much more being unnaccounted for...
It's easy to believe that a self-serving agenda to deprive MSM of the hard facts about meth - to disempower and render them helpless victims as occurred with HIV/AIDS, again using a PC/stigma pretext as their excuse to not get tough with the drug - is emerging once again...
How else to explain AID$ Inc.UK/Australia's continued pretence that the elephant in the room doesn't exist? Or the creaking, heartless inefficiency shown in the response to the proliferation of meth in the US; a crisis easily on a par with the insane change of direction these same agencies took in the 1990s when they removed their collective trigger-happy finger from the safe sex button? With each excuse not to return to effective HIV prevention campaigning or to tackle the spread of correlated and causative health risks head-on, their agenda to systematically enrich themselves off the misery, pain and suffering of the communities they are abysmally failing becomes ever more transparent...
"Just as Michael Moore reveals in his film, Sicko, like the American health insurance system today the AIDS industry is all about maximising profits, and that means pushing policies that run counter to preventing negative men seroconverting, such as endorsing sex-on-venue establishments and adverts that meaninglessly claim that "9 out of 10 gay men use condoms". Yes, THT, but how many of these 9 men use condoms ALL of the time? THT's PR dept. sure knows how to spin and fiddle the figures to give the impression that AIDS prevention in this country is working when it is damn well broke!"
~ SC [UK.Gay.Com boards]