AIDS educators fear Montreal's ticking crystal time bomb will explode into addiction and new HIV outbreak
It’s a day gays won’t soon forget, much like the day when gays first read about AIDS way back in 1981.
On February 11 this year, the New York City Department of Health announced that a gay New Yorker, after repeatedly barebacking while high on crystal meth, was diagnosed with an aggressively virulent HIV supervirus last December, a strain resistant to almost every anti-HIV drug.
The patient then progressed to full-blown AIDS within four months – a transition that usually takes about 10 years.
Within hours the denial in the gay community was eerily reminiscent of that initial reaction to AIDS: This was, after all, only one case.
But many activists seized the NYC health alert as an opportunity to point out that a new plague is sweeping gay communities across North America – crystal methamphetamine, a drug that keeps users, or "tweakers," up for days, dispensing with safer sex and engaging in bareback sex with multiple partners in one night.
"First people pointed fingers at the L.A. crystal queens," says Montreal artist Kat Coric, who has organized local HIV-education events for years. "It was ghetto. Then it spread to NYC and Toronto. Now it’s in Montreal. We’re not at the beginning – we’re in the middle stages. And most people are still in their denial stage. ‘I’m not like so-and-so.’ They just keep dancing. But it takes people [about] five years to crash. They lose their minds, their jobs, their savings."
Those who bareback on crystal meth can also lose their lives.
Crystal meth’s bumpy ride
Montreal police say crystal meth is not a problem in this city. Police spokesperson Melissa Carroll told Hour the department seized "163 pills" in 2004. "And that’s nothing," Carroll says. "[In contrast] we seized 1,352 pills of speed in 2004 and [fewer than] 2,000 of ecstasy."
But anecdotal evidence that crystal meth has arrived in Montreal is quickly piling up.
"My colleagues and I work at all the raves and it’s hard to say if [partygoers are high on] crystal, speed or coke," says Alexander Morin, executive director of GRIP (Group de recherche et de l’intervention psychosociale). "We know for sure when people come up to us and tell us. But if people are up for 72 hours, you can pretty well assume they’re on crystal."
The situation is similar at Montreal’s afterhours clubs, as well as at Bad Boy Club Montreal circuit parties like Black & Blue, where Dr. Pierre Tellier co-ordinates BBCM’s on-site medical teams.
"We are seeing more [people coming to] the infirmary for GHB and [ketamine], but we realize crystal meth is in the environment," Tellier says.
The attraction, of course, is that crystal methamphetamine – also known as Tina, crank or ice, and which sells for $60 a quarter-gram – creates euphoria and increases the sex drive, enhances sexual experience and reduces inhibitions. You can swallow, snort, smoke or inject it. You can also "booty bump" it by dabbing it up your ass.
"Crystal meth’s ability to keep users awake and feeling good for long periods of time has made it a popular drug in the dance club scene and in circuit parties," reports the Canadian AIDS Society.
CAS further points out, "Because of its potent effect on stamina and sex drive, the drug has become popular with gay and bisexual men who attend dance clubs and sex parties. Rituals of multi-partner barebacking have been developed around crystal meth. Crystal meth is often used with ketamine, a drug which loosens the sphincter, and with Viagra to overcome what is known as "crystal dick," or impotence that often accompanies the use of crystal meth."
"Crystal dick" has more men "bottoming" on crystal, a phenomenon veteran journalist Franck Sanello documents in his just-published bestseller Tweakers: How Crystal Meth Is Ravaging Gay America (Alyson Books).
"It all feels so intense and so good – having your ass played with, getting fucked with dildos, or whatever," one tweaker tells Sanello. "It’s like you could drive a Mack truck up your ass and it would feel good."
"You get long sessions of anal sex rather than shorter," Sanello told Hour this week. "Crystal meth acts as both a stimulant and an anesthetic. You can have anal sex for days and not feel any pain."
And if you tear up your ass barebacking you risk becoming infected with HIV.
Coric also adds, "The high obtained from the use of crystal comes with an unavoidable mental low which leaves the user feeling extremely depressed, unable to go on, lethargic, lazy, angry, confused, paranoid, delusional, et cetera… Of course these feelings of panic and paranoia worsen as users have less and less sleep after binging for a week."
Montreal’s crystal palace
Methamphetamine was originally synthesized from ephedrine in Japan in 1893. Over a century later, in 1998, the arrival of Viagra ignited the virus-like spread of crystal meth, which had previously been unpopular because of "crystal dick."
"I’ve been waiting for crystal [to explode] in Montreal for about five years and, to be honest, those using crystal meth are mostly people in Montreal’s gay community who travel to cities like NYC and San Francisco," says Kathy Tremblay of Montreal’s HIV-prevention group Séro Zéro. "But it’s still a small group of people mostly connected with the circuit parties."
However, while researching Tweakers, Sanello says that when he "told straight teens crystal is ravaging gay America, they told me, ‘It’s ravaging straight America.’"
Which is one reason why Alexander Morin of GRIP and Kathy Tremblay of Séro Zéro are both manning education kiosks at the mixed-crowd Bal en Blanc all-nighter this weekend. The rave is expected to draw 15,000 partygoers at the Palais des Congrès.
"In the club world, especially in the gay club world, you hear crystal meth is equal to free HIV," says David Morales, the famed DJ headlining Bal en Blanc. "I tell [tweakers], ‘You’re taking a risk.’ People get so fucked up they don’t remember who they slept with."
In its March 19 edition the medical journal The Lancet sounded yet another alarm about the drug, publishing the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Centre’s fast-track investigation of the gay New Yorker who contracted the HIV supervirus after barebacking on crystal meth.
Canadian health officials insist that the supervirus is not in Canada, though University of British Columbia AIDS researcher Julio Montaner says a similar HIV supervirus was reported in Vancouver in 2001.
Still, the AIDS Committee of Toronto stated on February 25 it is unhappy the NYC HIV supervirus health alert mentioned crystal meth use. "These are two separate issues [and] linking them only creates blame," ACT states.
Kat Coric is less charitable.
"This desperate quest for a [crystal meth] high is often referred to as – pardon me – ‘chasing the dragon’ or ‘sucking the cock of the devil,’" Coric says. "Crystal permanently changes the brain’s chemistry, permanently damages internal organs and causes irreparable dental devastation.
"I have seen crystal meth’s vicious circular death cycle," Coric affirms, "and if I had the chance I would destroy that drug forever."