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ACT gets hard on crystal

After months of pressure from local activists, the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT) has firmed up its position on crystal methamphetamine, clearly acknowledging a link between its use and unprotected sex among gay and bisexual men.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that crystal meth leads some men to engage in unprotected sex when they normally wouldn’t,” states a fact sheet published on ACT’s website last month. “It should be noted, however, that while some research studies support this, others are inconclusive.”

In June, ACT’s director of communications and community relations John Maxwell told Xtra the link was “not clear at all,” and pointed to contradictory research, which concluded gay men were no more likely to engage in unsafe sex while high on crystal than while using other drugs, such as marijuana.

But now ACT’s communications coordinator Tyler Steim says the organization recognized the link all along.

“ACT has always acknowledged a connection between crystal meth and HIV transmission,” says Steim. “What we have been reluctant to do – especially in light of the recent hysteria surrounding meth and HIV in the US – is overstate that link and represent crystal meth and HIV as a simple cause-and-effect relationship.”

Steim says the agency never tried to downplay a link between crystal use and HIV transmission, but rather that it was attempting to counter hard-line views by pointing to complexities around crystal use in the queer community.

The new fact sheet points to “underlying cultural issues/attitudes within the gay and bisexual community” which lead men to take sexual risks when high on crystal meth. For example, men might take crystal to escape from the day-to-day realities of HIV treatment, to feel desirable or to combat depression and feelings of guilt.

“Ultimately, what we were saying wasn’t getting across,” he says. “We should have been timelier with our position statement, but [we] stand by the harm-reduction approach we’ve taken to date.”

Steim adds that ACT has applied for a research grant to study the link between crystal meth and HIV transmission and hopes to begin an awareness campaign later this year.

Greg Downer, a volunteer safer-sex educator with ACT who was suspended for criticizing the organization’s soft position on crystal, says he’s pleased with the change.

“The fact sheet is clear, concise, to the point and very representative of the reality crystal presents to the community,” says Downer. “There’s no ambiguity. People can now make informed decisions.”

Downer, who was forced to take a six-month leave from the Gay Men’s Outreach Program last April, says he’s hoping to return earlier now that his point of view is no longer in conflict with ACT. Steim declined to comment on Downer’s situation citing confidentiality issues.

ACT isn’t the only organization that’s taking crystal more seriously lately. The federal government recently announced a reclassification of the drug from a schedule three classification under the Controlled Drugs And Substances to a schedule one classification, placing it on par with cocaine and heroin. That means tougher penalties for those caught producing, trafficking or selling the drug. In addition, stricter controls on the chemicals used to make crystal are expected to be announced soon.