Weekly Briefing

Washington: slip-ups

Despite the recent furore, General Stanley McChrystal did vote for Barack Obama. Disappointment came later, according to the 25 June Rolling Stone article in which he criticises the administration. The first time the two met, "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him," an adviser says.
“He didn't seem very engaged."

A former "military brat", time seems not to have changed the general: Vice-President Joe Biden ("Who's that?") and Afghanistan's envoy Richard Holbrooke ("Not another email . . . I don't even want to open it") are among those he derides. McChrystal has since apologised, offering to resign, and (at the time of writing) leaving Obama in an awkward position: remove his man in Afghanistan
at a crucial moment, or - already accused of being too laid-back about BP - look soft?

Sri Lanka: rights

On 18 June, Sri Lankans celebrated the first anniversary of the end of civil war. Tanks, rocket launchers and disabled veterans all took part in what must have been an arresting parade through the capital, Colombo.

Meanwhile, the government has faced growing international criticism of its actions during the final months of its 26-year war against the Tamil Tigers. By 22 June, the UN had set up a panel to investigate alleged human rights abuses. But concerns about the country's record extend beyond the war. An EU report last year claimed that Sri Lanka is in breach of UN human rights agreements and an anti-torture convention. The EU has warned that unless the country commits to improving its record, it will lose its preferential trade status.

Belarus: gas war

“Pies, butter, cheese or other means of payment" - Dmitry Medvedev told the press, slightly unexpectedly - would not be accepted as settlement for Belarus's gas debt. It was a humiliating response to President Alexander Lukashenko's offer to pay what the country owes - as
a result of gas price hikes - with machinery and other goods.

Belarus has since agreed to borrow currency to pay Russia. In the meantime, Russia has been cutting Belarus's gas supply; now, Belarus has announced it will suspend deliveries of Russian gas to Europe, which pass through the country. Lukashenko has warned the dispute is becoming a "gas war", arguing that Gazprom owes Belarus $260m for transit.

Zimbabwe: diamonds

When it was announced a few weeks ago that Zimbabwe's diamond fields had "met the minimum human rights standards" required by the international trading body, the Kimberley Process, it was also acknowledged that the country still had "a number of challenges" to overcome. But it is only now, as the Kimberley Process meets in Tel Aviv, that those challenges have been detailed. According to rights groups, forced labour, torture, harassment and plain old corruption are all still in evidence.

After years of near-meltdown, Zimbabwe desperately needs trade. But if diamond production is resumed before questions about workers' conditions are resolved, the entire Kimberley Process may be put in jeopardy.

California: fresh plates

“An exciting marriage of technology with need" is how Senator Curren Price of California describes the latest brainwave for eliminating the Sunshine State's $19bn budget deficit.

In a move so Californian it's amazing it didn't come sooner, the state legislature is considering a bill that would permit research into turning car licence plates into electronic mini-billboards.

“Exciting" might be a matter of opinion, but there's no doubt that the plates, which would flash adverts from stationary vehicles, would be headache-inducing. Fortunately for drivers, if not the state, the plates don't actually exist: a San Francisco company has patented the technology but
is yet to create a working model.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.