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ACT suspends volunteer over anti-crystal stand

He felt he couldn't follow policy any more

The AIDS Comm-ittee Of Toronto (ACT) has told one of its outreach volunteers to go on leave after he complained about the organization’s stance on crystal methamphetamine and the spread of HIV among gay men.

“I was told my values were very inconsistent with ACT’s,” says Greg Downer, who volunteered for five years as a safer-sex educator in bathhouses, bars, parties and street events. “They were so concerned that they didn’t trust me to put out the right message.”

Downer contends an ACT pamphlet called “Partying With Club Drugs For Gay Men,” published last fall, isn’t firm enough in warning against the risks of HIV infection to men who take crystal and have unprotected sex.

Earlier this year, Downer shared his concerns to ACT’s executive director Lori Lucier and administration by phone message and e-mail. When no one responded, he sent a letter to local media outlets and the chair of ACT’s board.

“ACT downplays the link between using crystal and getting HIV…. This will create a false sense of security for those people entertaining the idea of adding crystal to their sexual experience,” stated the letter.

Although the letter was never published, he arranged a meeting in April with ACT’s program volunteer coordinator Sergio Martinez and director of communications and community education John Maxwell to voice his concerns. Following the meeting he received an e-mail from Martinez telling him to go on a six-month leave from the Gay Men’s Outreach Program.

“I’m stunned,” Downer says. “I just can’t believe that I’m having this conversation with ACT. I just expected that they would take the lead in our community.”

Maxwell declined to comment on Downer’s leave of absence, saying it is a confidential matter.

As an HIV-positive reformed crystal addict, Downer has a lot of firsthand experience of how inhibitions get tossed out the bathhouse window during sex on crystal. He first snorted crystal in January 2002 and it quickly replaced all other recreational drugs he used.

“I disclosed my status to a number of people that continued to have sex with me without a condom,” he says. “That never happened to me before. More often than not, the subject didn’t even come up, which was alarming.”

In spite of his strong feelings, he insists he has kept his personal opinion to himself and never deviated from ACT’s official position on the issue when doing outreach on the organization’s behalf.

Crystal’s popularity as a club drug among gay men has been taking off in the last few years and has been widely reported on in San Francisico and New York. Maxwell says there is not a lot of conclusive research on the link between crystal and uninhibited sex among gay men.

Two weeks ago, Maxwell attended a province-wide conference on gay men’s education where a researcher from the BC Centre For Excellence presented a study on the sex habits of young gay men in Vancouver between 1997 and 2002. The study found that guys on crystal were no more likely to have unsafe sex than guys high on other drugs. It concluded that the use of crystal, marijuana and ecstasy were all connected to unprotected anal sex.

“The direct link that’s being made is not clear at all,” Maxwell says. “The waters are even muddier than they were before.”

ACT’s existing pamphlet on party drugs was based on interviews conducted in 2003 with 74 gay men who all reported using ecstasy, ketamine, GHB, crystal and cocaine while partying in Toronto. Although the study found many of the men eschewed safer sex when high, it also reported that many had a lousy track record for safer sex in the first place.

Maxwell says ACT will apply for funding from the government to begin its own research on the subject before considering an anti-crystal campaign.

Although ACT is reluctant to say there’s a link between crystal and unprotected sex, the Ottawa-based Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) calls the chance of HIV infection through unsafe sex “one of the biggest health risks from using crystal meth” because it increases euphoria and lowers inhibitions.

CAS project consultant Lynne Belle-Isle based the fact sheet on data collected through a workshop she conducted in Ottawa and interviews with 10 gay men. Although she agrees there isn’t much research on the topic, she says she couldn’t ignore the compelling testimonials from gay men who told her they obsessively seek out sex when they’re high on crystal.

“The use of crystal meth is different to the use of other drugs because there are rituals associated with it,” she says. “It does have a direct impact on the parts of the brain that stimulate sexual drive. One guy in New York told me it turns the biggest top into the greediest bottom.”