Crystal Meth needs to be talked about because more gay men are using it. That’s something health care workers, police officers and advocates in Vancouver can all agree on-but it’s almost the only thing.
“We’ve been trying to sound the alarm on this,” says Const Richard Dejong, from the Vancouver Police Department’s drug division. The trend is increasing and when it becomes widespread, he says, “we’re in for a real ride.”
This much, people can agree on. Past this point, the debate grows heated.
Some people say crystal meth is causing a rise in HIV rates, others think it’s just being scapegoated for the rise.
Some say it’s highly addictive, others say it can be used recreationally.
Some say it affects everyone, others say it just affects a few target groups. Most agree that one of these target groups is the gay men’s community.
What is clear is that crystal meth use is increasing, says Dejong.
More users, more super labs, more meth-related deaths-in BC, 33 people died in 2004 compared to only five in 2001.
The trend is moving north from Washington, he says, where the user rate has been rising for the past six or seven years as the drug becomes more available from “mom and pop labs.”
His concerns are that crystal meth is highly addictive, that it can lead to permanent health problems like psychosis, and that it’s as cheap as crack cocaine ($10-$15) with a high that lasts hours instead of 30 minutes.
It’s also very easy to get.
“There are about 111 different ways to make crystal meth,” says Dejong. “It’s very easily obtained by purchasing products at London Drugs and Canadian Tire.”
Matt Lovick, the support-program coordinator at YouthCo AIDS Society and co-chair of the Gay Men’s Crystal Meth Working Group, has very different opinions about crystal meth.
“It’s certainly not something we need to panic about. It’s just another drug,” says Lovick. “When people get hysterical about crystal meth, judgment starts happening… The hysteria is more damaging to the gay community than crystal meth.”
He says that crystal meth can and is used recreationally without causing severe damage by many gay men, and even some lesbians. “I know anecdotally of queer women who are using, but I don’t think we’re seeing waves of users like gay men. But queer women aren’t connected to the agencies like gay men,” he points out.
The hysteria that crystal meth is causing HIV rates to rise is having a huge social impact, he continues. It creates divisiveness between “good gays and bad gays.”
But in Vancouver, he adds, there isn’t enough information to show that the link between using meth and rising HIV rates is true.
“Now is not a time to witch hunt or blame rising HIV rates on meth users,” Lovick insists.
These are the kinds of issues the working group, which began in 2002, hopes to find more information about, he says. The group recently drafted a proposal for federal funding in order to answer the following questions: How many gay men are using crystal meth in Vancouver? Why they are using it, for recreation or because they’re addicted? How is it affecting HIV infection rates?
The funding would allow the working group to do outreach work in the gay men’s community, says Michael Mancinelli, the substance-use educator at AIDS Vancouver who also sits on the working group. Specifically harm reduction, intervention and a needs-assessment with men who have sex with men who are using, or have used, crystal meth.
“Not enough resources are out there,” says Mancinelli. “As much as there’s so much information that seems to be out there from the media or the Internet, there’s not.”
Al Zwiers, a counsellor for Three Bridges Addiction Services and also part of the working group, agrees. More resources and awareness are important, he says.
Zwiers sees crystal meth as a serious problem.
“People who have been vigilant about their sexual risks aren’t anymore,” he says, of crystal meth users. “It’s all about getting fucked. It’s all about cock.”
But it’s hard to say exactly how bad the situation is, since Zwiers only sees a specific subset of users-men who have a problem or are beginning to have a problem with addiction.
He maintains that even recreational use once or twice a year can lead to unprotected sex.
He says crystal meth gives some gay men a “short-term sense of immediate community, even though that community is only based on fucking.
“When people come off crystal meth, they feel even more isolated,” he notes.
Crystal meth has become the “crisis du jour” in the media, he adds, because it’s easier to focus on that than on other issues that gay men face, such as self-identity, self-worth, and a need for belonging that often isn’t addressed.