Javier Esteban via Unsplash
A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.Romain Giraud is a 30-something harm reduction coordinator at a prevention centre in Marseille, specialising in chemsex and working on digital prevention campaigns. Outside of his work at Bus 31/32, Giraud is no stranger to using drugs; one he’s experimented with recently is 3-MMC, which he used on a regular basis for a year and a half during the pandemic.
3-MMC is a novel psychoactive substance (NPS) which belongs to the cathinones group and whose structure is similar to other synthetic cathinones such as mephedrone. In fact, cathinones keep evolving and changing names. 4-MMC used to be more popular, then 3-MMC appeared around 2012. Today, other cathinones like 3-CMC and 2-CMC are also on the rise, according to Giraud.The effects of 3-MMC and other cathinones are comparable to uppers like amphetamines and MDMA. On a physical level, they raise your heart rate and blood pressure, make you grind your teeth, dilate your pupils, induce sweating, and increase body temperature. Psychologically, 3-MMC can make you feel euphoric, sociable and increase your libido. However, it also has side effects: insomnia, anxiety and even psychosis.Giraud first started occasionally using 3-MMC to spice up his sex life, but his use became habitual during COVID. When I asked him to tell me how the drug felt to him, he described the ups as an endless cycle of pleasure that never allowed him to reach satisfaction. With each hit, he was sure the drug was going to get him right in the sweet spot, but it never would – so he kept on using more and more. “It's a FOMO drug,” Giraud explains. “It completely messes up with your notion of pleasure. It's as if you were about to cum, but you never actually do.”
Ana Gallegos and Gregorio Planchuelo, both researchers at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), told VICE that researchers still have limited information available on the effects of 3-MMC. The effects of 3-MMC are similar to MDMA and 4-MMC, but less intense. Gallegos and Planchuelo think Giraud’s experience of suspended pleasure could have something to do with the fact that the drug feels weaker than other stimulants. “It may be possible that in some users, this leads to increased or repeated doses to achieve the desired effects,” they theorise over email. The effects also don’t last as long, which might explain why users want to re-dose.According to Giraud, this habit of re-dosing in search of the high point of the experience was more addictive than the substance itself. "It's like scrolling pleasure. You think, ‘Ah, maybe next time will be more interesting’.” The rise in the consumption of synthetic cathinones began in the chemsex scene of the the mid-2000s, when these substances became more widely available on the internet. During sex, synthetic cathinones can intensify pleasure, stimulate desire and even improve physical performance.For Giraud, seeking the drug’s extra oomph gradually became a necessity during sex. In fact, his libido adjusted to the drug, so much so that it virtually disappeared if 3-MMC wasn’t in play. That created a void that was hard to fill, he says. After experiencing that for several months, he couldn’t get rid of it without opting for the easiest solution: using again.
"Even if you're not under the influence anymore, in your everyday life, you're never satisfied," Giraud says. “For several months, you can no longer find any pleasure in anything. You're bored. You're really bored.” Luckily, his job and experience with drugs allowed him to realise how his use was affecting other areas of his life. Slowly, he began disentangling himself from 3-MMC.He worries that people who don’t have a history of responsible drug use might not realise they have a problem. “I have been taking drugs at parties for the past 20 years, but it’s not the case for everyone,” he said. “3-MMC is the first drug experience for some people.” Since it’s cheaper than cocaine and is commonly cut with fewer substances than speed, Giraud notes that it’s popular among younger and less well-off people. Its low price allows users to take more hits without breaking the bank, which often ends up prolonging the party (or chemsex sesh).According to the EMCDDA, most 3-MMC users already do drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, or ecstasy, though Gallegos and Planchuelo’s research confirms the drug is used by a lot of young and inexperienced drug users. “At least in part this is because it was reported to be easily available, not controlled [by European measures] at the time of the surveys, and having a relatively low cost,” they write.
The researchers also found that 3-MMC is also sometimes injected during chemsex, which can entail severe “health risks, such as transmission of blood-borne diseases, elevated levels of drug and sexual risk-taking behaviours”. In Giraud’s experience, people who use 3-MMC during chemsex parties are much more prone to side effects than people using it at raves. Of course, taking it occasionally on a night out also involves some risk, but things can get more dangerous in intimate settings where people use more and for longer periods. The problem with people taking 3-MMC in a private setting is also that they’re often harder to reach.Based on the people he’s met at his prevention centre, Giraud thinks more and more people started using the drug by themselves during lockdown. He estimates that lone users are the fastest-growing group of 3-MMC users, but research doesn't allow yet to back up his observations.“I see more and more people who classify themselves as home users of 3,” he said. “Some come to see me and describe their solitary hits. They stay alone at home and use it to make music, watch porn, play video games, or sew.” This trend also worries Gallegos and Planchuelo. “It’s important to consider that the risk of overdose might be exacerbated by use in environments where it may be difficult to ask for help,” they say.
Giraud’s never tried taking 3-MMC by himself, but with time, he did end up using it outside of chemsex parties, too – for instance, at the club. “It started to take up more space than I wanted and it became difficult to control,” he says. “I saw my mental health deteriorate drastically.”He believes that his addiction had a lot to do with pleasure-seeking. People need variety when it comes to leisure: spending time with their family, doing sports, gardening, enjoying a glass of wine, partying, etc. “Addiction occurs when you reduce the scope of pleasure to just one thing, and nothing else gives you pleasure,” Giraud explains.Like many, he struggled with the fact that most sources of pleasure were limited to little or nothing during lockdown. With parties, bars and restaurants inaccessible, Giraud barely even saw anyone. These conditions only served to send his habit spiralling out of control. “I was using several times a week and in fairly large quantities,” he said. “I also wasn't feeling well overall; I was angry at the injustices happening at that time.” He managed to crawl out of this hole by learning how to enjoy other things in life again – mainly making music. He also started appreciating his work a lot more, seeing it as a source of pleasure, too. Nowadays, he only uses cathinones occasionally and with people he knows well. “And we establish rules like: ‘We have one gram, but let’s stop at 2 AM,’” he explains. In the end, the main problem with NPS is that people don’t have much reliable information about them. Whether you use it to have sex or party, you won’t automatically end up in an infernal use cycle if you’re knowledgeable about risk reduction. The problem is, you often only realise you need to set strong boundaries around your drug use when you are already in too deep.Giraud recommends the app Knowdrugs to find information about pretty much any drug you might use. Getting your own drugs tested is also the safest thing to do, “because you can find out what you’re consuming and what risks you’re taking”, he says.Above all, he advises paying close attention to how you experience pleasure when you use cathinones: “If you feel like the drugs have become your main source of pleasure, try to do other things.” Pretty sound advice, IMO.