Friday, January 18, 2008

Our Continuing Crystal Meth Mess

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #330, January 18, 2008)

For some time I’ve wanted to say something in this column about the use of crystal meth in the leather and gay male communities. No, I’ve never used it, but I’m still affected by it. It affects all of us, users and non-users alike.

Like California in the 1960s, the leather and gay male communities have developed their own drug subcultures. And, like California in the 1960s, methamphetamine (also known as crystal, crank, Tina, Crissy or tweak) is one of its stars. Users today take the drug orally, snort it, smoke it, inject it or do “booty bumps” (squirting the drug into the rectum, where it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream). Online profiles advertise a willingness to “PNP” (party and play), where the drug-taking is an integral part of the sex.

Meth is a powerful stimulant that heightens euphoria and lowers inhibitions. It gives users the freedom to do sexual things they otherwise might not do, and the energy to do those things for hours.

But this freedom and energy come at a very high price. Large doses of meth often make users mean, paranoid and psychotic. In the rush of the high, users lose sight of such simple things as eating, drinking and sleeping. They also tend to be too high to be concerned about HIV prevention, which often results in adding the devastation of HIV infection to that wrought by meth use.

How to deal with it? The U.S. government’s decades-long “War on Drugs” has been a failure that would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. (Outlawing alcohol made us a nation of scofflaws in the 1920s—why did anyone think it would be different with meth and other drugs?)

One current way of addressing the problem is “harm reduction.” Advocates of harm reduction take the tack that if people are going to use drugs, they should know how to use them in ways that minimize as much risk as possible. Thus, websites and counselors stress the importance of managing drug use by managing the rest of one’s life. Sample suggestions: Stock the refrigerator with food and beverages before you start partying; meth is a powerful appetite suppressant, so eat while you’re high even if you’re not hungry; drink all the water you can; have a financial plan in place and pay your rent before you pay your meth dealer, because it’s worse to be high when you’re homeless.

In one sense this seems like a finger-in-the-dike strategy, because for many people the time will come when their addiction will overwhelm their best-laid plans. These strategies attempt to control an addiction that, by definition, ultimately cannot be controlled.

But in another sense harm reduction is buying time. It might slow the downward spiral. And perhaps an addict won’t have to spiral so far down before deciding they need help.

Recovery from meth addiction is possible, but not easy. An indication of how powerfully addicting meth can be is the fact that success is often defined as spending more total time not under meth’s influence, and longer and longer periods of time between relapses and episodes of meth use. And then, even if a person is no longer using, there are still consequences of past use to be dealt with—problems ranging from damaged teeth to ongoing struggles with HIV infection.

Beyond setting up harm-reduction counseling, the leather and gay male communities must continue to voice their disapproval of meth abuse. Our own voices have a credibility that voices outside these communities do not have. Our message, to both current meth users and those who might start, must be: We love you. We value you as community members. We want you to remain alive, strong and healthy. Please don’t sabotage your potential by using meth.

The process of turning the tide could take years. Nevertheless, it can be done. We’ve done it before—a generation of gay men reinvented the way they had sex in the 1980s to counter the AIDS threat. The current generation needs to reinvent sex yet again, to clean up the party and make both crystal meth and HIV tragic relics of our community’s past.

Crystal meth abuse: Do something about it

Read: Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports Magazine. Published in 1972 and now out of print, it remains required reading for anyone interested in the most objective and comprehensive book ever on street drugs such as meth—and legal drugs like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. (Available in libraries and on the web at <>.)

Visit: <>, a website with crystal meth info, resources and support for gay and bi guys in the Twin Cities. There’s information here for current and former users, or for those concerned about a partner’s or friend’s meth use. The site is a collaboration of the HIM Program of the Red Door Clinic, the PrideAlive men’s community initiative of Minnesota AIDS Project, and AccessWorks.

Sign: the Gay Men & Crystal Meth Manifesto at <>. Put together by the Crystal Meth Working Group, a part of New York’s HIV Forum, the Manifesto is an example of our community giving itself a clear and unequivocal message about crystal meth use and what we all must do to deal with the problem.