The BC government is failing to address the growing use of crystal meth among gay men, charges Dr Tom Lampinen from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
Though a March press release from Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) acknowledges that “[a]pproximately 3,000 people are dependent on crystal meth across VCH, with gay men and street-entrenched youth among the highest risk groups,” most of BC’s meth programs are focused on youth only.
In fact, the same day VCH issued its press release, the BC Ministries of Health and Public Safety issued a joint release of their own announcing $8 million in new spending to address youth addictions to crystal meth, including $1.7 million specifically for youth programs in VCH’s area. The ministries allocated an additional $450,000 for VCH to develop youth prevention programs, containment, treatment and detox, and additional research into meth usage.
“Focusing on youth ignores the bulk of the problem,” Lampinen says.
Last week, Lampinen tabled a new report at the 17th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug-Related Harm indicating that approximately 2,500 gay men were using crystal meth in Vancouver in 2002, including 700 who were HIV-positive.
When asked how much VCH spends on meth programs targeting gay men, a spokesperson for VCH says she cannot break down its addictions programming budget by drug or target group. “I couldn’t find anything we’ve done specifically for gay men,” Viviana Zanocco says.
Zanocco says the lack of action in the gay community is due to a shortage of data. “With Downtown Eastside injection drug users, we can extrapolate from the number of people using the needle exchange and other programs,” she says. “You hear [about gay men using meth] but it’s all anecdotal.”
When asked about Lampinen’s new report, she says she’s not aware of the data “but it will go a long way towards determining what we need to do.”
The lack of provincial attention and funding to date hasn’t deterred the Gay Men’s Methamphetamine Working Group (GaMMa). GaMMa volunteers have been bringing their own message of safer drug use to bars and clubs in the Davie Village since March.
Their goal is clear, written on the backs of their shirts: “Shedding light on gay men and crystal meth.”
“The GaMMa project is rooted in a non-judgemental, harm reduction approach,” explains its coordinator Jody Jollimore. “We are only trying to promote a healthy approach to drug use, while providing some resources for those who use.”
Founded two years ago, GaMMa got a significant boost last year when it received a federal grant from the Canadian Drug Strategy. The group is a collaboration encompassing concerned individuals from YouthCO, AIDS Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health, the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and the BC Persons with AIDS Society. Ottawa had previously called for proposals for locally based harm-reduction programs.
Jollimore says the overall goal of the project is to create a dialogue within the gay community about meth use.
“By being a regular presence in the community, the volunteers and the project are becoming known,” he says. “People are approaching the volunteers, sharing their stories and experiences. Hopefully this will empower people to speak to others.”
Volunteer Mike Varma says GaMMa differs from other strategies in that it is peer-based. “Members of GaMMa are either current or ex-users, or non-users who’ve been close to the drug.”
At a recent GaMMA outreach night at the PumpJack Pub, Varma and his teammates pass out cards with the names and numbers of information and treatment services, condoms, lube and pamphlets on the risk of unsafe sex due to lowered inhibitions associated with meth, and the health risks meth poses to HIV-positive users.
Bar patrons seem uncertain how to interact with the volunteers at first, but there is clear curiosity.
Some patrons try to get information surreptitiously. One young man stands alone by the pinball machines eyeing the booth for five minutes before sneaking up and grabbing a flier while the volunteers are talking to other patrons.
Varma acknowledges that social stigma prevents some people from approaching them.
“Putting the fliers in bathroom stalls allows people to grab fliers without other people seeing and getting the impression that they might be interested,” he says. An hour after fliers have been placed in the bathroom, most are gone.
Later, a patron approaches Varma, laughing. “Crystal meth? I don’t want any!” The volunteers engage him, and he eventually tells them he has “a friend” who he’s concerned about.
“He used to be really messed up,” says the man. “He has a good life now, but he still dabbles and I’m worried about him.”
Varma offers him a referral card and pamphlet he can offer to his friend. Suddenly, the patron becomes visibly emotional and admits that he once had a drug problem.
“It’s good you’re targeting the gay community,” he says. “Gays sometimes have trouble using public resources. We need people who understand gay issues.”
Jollimore agrees and hopes the project will help evaluate what the authorities should do next.
“I hope that at the end of this project, we could go to the BC government and say ‘this is what we need,'” he says.