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Public health

‘Chemsex’ declared a public health problem by Barcelona authorities

With 200 such substance-abuse cases registered in 2016, City Council opts to tackle phenomenon

The consequences of “chemsex” – the phenomenon, popular in the gay community, of taking drugs in order to be able to maintain sexual relations for long periods of time – are now an official public health issue. Despite being a relatively minor phenomenon, Barcelona City Council has decided to address the dangers of this practice with it municipal Drugs Plan, given that the practice carries significant risks. Chemsex can not only facilitate the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but it can also generate dependence on toxic substances. Last year, 193 cases of the problematic use of drugs for sexual purposes were treated in Barcelona.

Antoni Gata, a psychologist at BCN Checkpoint, speaks to a patient
Antoni Gata, a psychologist at BCN Checkpoint, speaks to a patient

Although the use of recreational drugs in such contexts is not new, and not limited to the gay community, chemsex has particular characteristics: for example, the use of specific substances (including mephedrone, methamphetamine, ketamine, and GHB) to prolong sex sessions that can last for days.

According to one community center, chemsex can triple the risk of HIV infection in the gay community

The combination of these drugs makes it possible to endure marathon sex parties, but can leave participants in a state of semi-consciousness that reduces the perception of risk. This leads to an increase in risky sexual behaviors, such as not wearing a condom, which consequently increases the transmission of STIs. According to the BCN Checkpoint community center, chemsex can triple the risk of HIV infection in the gay community.

The City Council and the Barcelona Public Health Agency (ASPB) have shifted their focus to the less-visible side of the phenomenon: problematic consumption and dependence on substances to have sex. The community centers that serve people affected by this have already begun to report cases of problematic consumption of sex-linked toxic substances. BCN Checkpoint began offering psychological consultations to address these situations. “There has been an increase in the percentage of men who start treatment for substance abuse in recent years, and in 2016, [methamphetamines, mephedrone, GHB, and ketamine] accounted for 7% of new treatments for substance-use disorders in men.” Since 2013, this percentage has doubled.

The drugs leave the participants in a state of semi-consciousness that reduces the perception of risk

In the plan, ASPB and the City Council have implemented a strategy for short-term prevention and treatment programs for the use of substances associated with chemsex in the LGBTQ population. The city is committed to giving “personalized” attention to people with this problem and who require an intervention or a long-term therapeutic process. “It is also a harm-reduction strategy, and we are emphasizing prevention to keep people in the early stages from reaching problematic abuse,” explains Maribel Pasarín, director of the ASPB’s Public Health Observatory.

English version by Debora Almeida.

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