Meth to the Madness :: The Return of the Drug Culture
Ice, sketch, Tina, glass, crank, speed; you can call it what you want but it's all the same: Crystal Meth, the beast of the bathhouse.
Crystal Methamphetamine, more commonly referred to as Crystal Meth or crystal, is a highly addictive central nervous system stimulant that can be injected, snorted, smoked, or ingested orally and gay men - particularly young gay men in the club scene - around the country are using the drug at an alarming rate. Whether they are a "tweaked out twink" looking for a trick at an after-hours club or a so-called recreational user looking to lose their inhibitions at a sex party, young men use the effects of the drug (which can last from 20 minutes to 12 hours) to escape as they join an estimated 35 million users world-wide in tweaking away the days.
The love affair between crystal and gay men is hardly a new romance. A substantial body of data now confirms that sexual risk behaviors among gay and bisexual men have significantly increased over the last several years, in part due to the sexual disinhibition associated with the drugs use. According to the website Meth Kills - an online campaign against methamphetamine, in New York City, syphilis rates have doubled each of the last three years, with men who have sex with men accounting for virtually all of the increase in cases. Investigation by the City health authorities indicate that a syphilis diagnosis is strongly associated with crystal use, HIV seropositivity, and having sex in a bathhouse, at a sex party, or via an internet connection.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports crystal meth as the second most popular illegal substance in the world. Here in the U.S., the epidemic has grown in the last few years, moving eastward, from Hawaii to the West Coast, through the Midwest, and is now putting down roots in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Miami and New York.
Why We Use
Gay men use crystal for the high. The rush. The euphoria. For many, sex is synonymous with speed. For many still, being gay is synonymous with sex, which is synonymous with crystal, which is...well, you can see where this is going. Simply put: the drug can make users feel like they are accepted, dance all night or all weekend and fuck like a champ. On the surface it is the damn near perfect drug.
Of course, that’s on the surface, and at first glance anything can seem like a dream. But, when drug counselors like Arnold Martin, program coordinator, Project NEON, a Seattle-based addiction services program for sexual minorities since 1993, take a closer look at crystal and its effect on gay men the answers aren’t as simple as one might imagine.
"A lot of ’users’ begin when they are young because they are dealing with self-esteem issues," explained Martin, who has overseen the crystal meth recovery program from eight years. Martin has experience working with groups of men in recovery and with addicts on a one-on-one basis. "For crystal addicts, the drug seems to hit that spot in the brain which allows the user to not think about life’s problems. It allows them the be that Superman with a boosted self-esteem - socially or sexually - in public or in private."
Like many major U.S. cities, Seattle has seen an increase in crystal use among gay men. In King County, about 10 percent of gay and bisexual men used crystal meth in a given year, according to date from Public Health - Seattle & King County. These rates are twice as high in men under the age of 30. "Drug dealers have found ways to move the drug to Seattle, usually trucked-in from Mexico, and we become the middle of the spider web for the Pacific Northwest," explained Martin. "Regardless of how it gets anywhere, the drug is highly addictive, cheap and easy to access. When the addiction hits a user will find a way to get it."
Nightclubs and bathhouses are a prime location for speed freaks when they are on the hunt for a fix. Users buy the drug in different amounts, but for a regular user, a quick "bump" in a bathroom stall can keep the party going for a few more hours until they post up at a drug party where they may smoke it from a glass pipe, slam it (inject the drug intravenously), or snort the crystals in a powder form. In extreme cases of addiction, users are known to abuse what’s known as a "trail mix," a mixture of crystal and cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, or crack cocaine - to name a few.
Drug counselors like Martin say that the easy access to the drug coupled with how cheap it sales for (as little as $20 for a "quarter," one-fourth of a gram, the usual minimum purchase amount) is also a driving force behind the wave of addiction among gay club-goers. "For the most part, people know crystal is bad news," he said. "But people still talk about it with a glamorization."
"What is alarming to me is that we are seeing more and more that younger people are becoming addicted faster than what used to be," explained Martin. "Typically, in the past, people in recovery would report that they first began to snort the drug, then smoke it, and if and when they do, would inject it. We are now hearing young gay men say they are injecting quicker than ever before. That is devastating. The drugs enter your system faster and can do much more harm to your body. Because the drug is illicit, you cannot control what is in it. These young men have no idea what they are injecting into their system."
Smoke In Glass
AJ (not his real name), 34, has been using crystal - in one form or another - since he was 16. As we sit and talk he loads his third "bowl" in an hour and, holding a lighter up to the glass pipe to heat the crystal into a liquid, begins to smoke speed. Smoking is his preferred way of getting high off the drug.
He is not talking very fast. In fact, he looks tired.
We are sitting in his living room, which hasn’t been cleaned for quite some time, on a couch that is decorated with dirty sheets, what appears to be cigarette ashes and empty lighters.
He’s been up for three days straight he explains. "I’m cracked out and eventually, when the crystal runs out, I will crash," he says.
The thing is, he doesn’t "look" like a tweaker. We’ve all seen the pictures of skeletal people with meth-mouth (rotted teeth) and besides his horrible breath; he does not resemble any of these images. He is actually overweight.
Does he use?
"Sure. All the time," he says. "I’ve been on the shit for years," he continues, almost defiantly as if he’s giving an acceptance speech for winning a Tweaker of the Year award. "I can start and stop whenever I want to," he proclaims.
Trouble is ... he doesn’t want to stop.
As our conversation veers towards the timeline of his use it becomes very clear that AJ has not only accepted that he abuses crystal, but has no intention of living a life without speed.
We go over the checklist of "Are You’s?" that I’ve brought.
"Are you HIV positive?" I ask.
"Don’t know," he shrugs.
"Are you sick in any way, such as infected with an STD or anything?"
"Yeah. A few."
An Addict’s Revelation
He refuses to tell me with exactly what STD or STDs he has. I shudder at the thought of anyone hooking up with him. He’s not showered in days, he lives in filth, and well ... he’s not attractive. The drug has made his breath bad, his skin is yellowish, and he looks much older than he is. "I hookup up all the time," he says in a manner so matter-of-fact you have to believe him. "Other meth heads crash here all the time and we have sex parties."
That’s easy to see as there are gay porn DVDs and skin mags flung around his apartment the way one might scatter birdseed.
We move on to a "Have You’s?"
Let’s just say AJ has. He has recovered from using and gone back (at least four times), called-in sick to work or not shown up so much that he’s constantly out of work, sold drugs to support his habit, lost friends, been late on bills because time or responsibility no longer matter.
Doe he have regret? Doe he have feelings of shame?
"Sure," he says. "When I’m sober."
AJ knows the dangers of long-term use. He is aware of the legal ramification if caught selling or being in possession of the drug. It’s not enough, he explains, because, for him, nothing compares to the high.
AJ is not alone. In doing my research for this story I came across a website called tweaker.org, and online handbook of sorts with such tags as, "Tweaker Vocabulary," Slamming Info," and "Tweaking Tips For Party Boys" it is plain to see that there is a group of up-and-coming users that have all the info about the drug at their fingertips and still want to use.
Tweaker.org, first launched in 1997, is network of peer educators, volunteers and staff that - specifically in San Francisco - do outreach at street fairs and sex clubs. The web-based focus of tweaker.org is vast, with page after page of information (also available in Spanish) to include factual information about the drug, resources for users who want to quit, an online forum, and true stories from the trenches of the crystal-infused gay club scene.
Like many of his peers, AJ was first turned on to the drug outside of a gay nightclub. He was a wide-eyed teenager looking to sneak into an 18+ dance night when he was asked, "Do you party?" Soon, he explained, that question gave way to "Do you Party n’ Play?" AJ didn’t know quite how to answer those questions at the time; he’d not yet snorted crystal. He left with the man and as he describes, "we snorted some speed, then smoked it, and had sex."
Now, years and thousands of empty drug baggies later, he is the one asking the questions. He is the one searching for those who "Party n’ Play."
If you or someone you know is suffering from Crystal Meth addiction and needs help, please contact Crystal Meth Anonymous or reach out to your city’s local LGBT Community Center for outreach support or counseling. In Part 2 another personal story and struggle with addiction...A Moment of Clarity.