Michel Morin knew his friend was in trouble when he realized the man had been awake and partying for four days straight.
“It’s ironic, being here now,” Morin said at an Aug 7 forum on the state of crystal meth use in gay Vancouver. Ironic, that is, to be looking for solutions now that none can help his friend. “We scattered his ashes a day ago.”
Meth Lab, a community forum co-presented by YouthCo and the Out On Screen Film and Video Festival, drew some 30 people together at Cinemark Tinseltown to discuss, argue and raise awareness around methamphetamine (crystal meth). Is meth the second gay epidemic, or have media over-hyped the issue, and demonized users along the way?
Conversation, while heated at moments, was muted in part by the absence of one scheduled panelist-former YouthCo employee Matt Lovick, whose harm reduction stance on crystal meth has acted in the past as a foil to absolutist notions of prohibition or abstinence.
Phillip Banks, director of HIV Prevention and Awareness programs at AIDS Vancouver, moderated the discussion, which featured two panelists: crystal meth prevention activist Mark Gueffroy and Ian Martin, a family physician from the Three Bridges Community Health Centre.
For Gueffroy, whose own experience with crystal ended in a suicide attempt, “there is no such thing as moderation.”
Gueffroy posits that crystal use is absolutely a crisis in the gay community and, furthermore, that “the first time you use crystal meth, you are addicted.”
Not everyone at the forum agreed. “It is very likely that a lot of people can use it without getting addicted,” Martin countered. An audience member agreed, insisting, “I do believe people can use crystal recreationally.”
Conversation soon turned to the question of culpability and plans for the future. If meth use is indeed a crisis, then who is responsible for the damage?
One repeated proposition-Vancouver’s own queer drinking establishments.
Gueffroy charged that some staff members in some queer clubs deal crystal meth.
Morin agreed with Gueffroy, lamenting that “bars still have employees who are drug dealers.”
Out On Screen executive director Drew Dennis took the mic a moment to point out that: “We know the management [of these bars]. I think it’s our responsibility to say, ‘no, that’s not okay.’ We need a safe space for our youth to come out.”
“Clubs and using drugs might be people’s first access to the gay community,” noted one audience member. “Can we offer something different from that?”
While the forum agreed that alternatives to the bar scene were needed, participants disagreed as to whether pushing drugs out of our bars should be a priority in the meantime. Where else, asked Banks, would users then turn to find their drugs? “[Gay bars are] the safest place for guys to find the drugs they are going to use.”
For Gueffroy, however, socializing with users jeopardizes his own recovery.
Gueffroy’s approach to staying off meth includes a rule that “I can’t associate with someone who’s actively using.” Another recovering meth addict present had a similar rule, saying it is “absolutely essential [to] find non-users-healthy friendships.”
But, while exclusion may be necessary for the purposes of self-preservation, others in attendance warned against demonizing users.
“If you isolate someone… how are you going to support them?” asked one woman. “If you remove yourself from them, there is no dialogue.”
A lack of available gay-friendly health resources may further ostracize gay men. Gueffroy said gay users often feel “afraid to go to residential treatment centres because they have heard they aren’t gay-friendly.”
Others in attendance agreed, noting that, while Three Bridges tends to be a queer-competent resource, counsellors sometimes fail to treat leather and trans patients appropriately.
“We’re far from perfect,” agreed Martin. But he went on to insist “if you’re truly motivated, there are resources available.”
So what is the queer community doing to ensure that health resources remain accessible and continue to grow? The forum had far more questions than answers.
“I think we’ve taken the first step,” said Gueffroy. “The first step is having this forum.”
Banks called for compassion and community building in the face of panic and offered his hope that meth would not divide the community. “The greatest things happen for gay men when we come together.”