Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Is Crystal Meth the New Aids?

This year's Image+Nation festival sheds light on the dark side of Tina

"This is, if not worse than AIDS, the same," declares a grave CJ. He is one of seven gay men shown wrestling with an addiction to crystal meth in Rock Bottom: Gay Men & Meth. This harrowing film was screened back-to-back with Meth at Montreal's LGBT film fest, Image+Nation. Until the release of these two racy docs, the drug remained gay men's dirty little secret in a way that eerily recalls how the AIDS crisis was once kept under wraps.

"We're conscious of the fact that crystal meth has arrived in Montreal and it's problematic for everyone," says Thomas Haig, who is an intervention coordinator for Séro Zéro, a community group that works to protect the sexual health of gay and bisexual men in Montreal.  Haig introduces the three-man panel of a post-screening discussion to an almost exclusively male audience. While both docs have distinctly American sensibilities-Rock Bottom is set in New York and Meth in L.A.-the panel's knowledge of Canadian-based research and fieldwork brings local relevance to the issue.

Séro Zéro representative Bernard Ouellet reports that on the whole, the drug still appears to be in its infancy in these parts: until 2004, crystal was not even listed among the drugs seized at Montreal raves. Crystal, also nicknamed tina and ice, is the crystalline form of methamphetamine, a psycho-stimulant drug. It induces euphoria, lowers inhibitions, decreases appetite, increases sex drive and is linked to erectile dysfunction. Inhaled, smoked or snorted (under a yellow variant called 'crank'), men on crystal are often unable to ejaculate for hours after a hit, allowing for all-night, uninterrupted sessions of booty spanking.  The irrepressible appetite that characterizes crystal highs also leads many users to partake in reckless, hedonistic behaviour.

In fact, the recent spike in HIV and syphilis rates among American gay men is closely linked to crystal use-more than a third of new HIV infections in the US are attributed to the drug. And much like house music, crystal has pretty much become an essential ingredient at circuit parties.

Although crystal has already left a devastating trail of shattered lives in the US and in B.C., the Canadian media has only recently begun to pay attention. The CBC show, The Fifth Estate first ran a poignant story about three B.C. youths hooked on the stimulant in March of 2005. And on September 19, the findings of a task force mandated to look into what's now been dubbed the Albertan "crystal meth crisis" finally led to an In-Depth CBC online piece

Ironically, the saving grace of the Québécois thus far has been our trusty Hells Angels associates. With a hit of crystal costing relatively little  in comparison to a coke binge, the Hells tried to prevent the drug from slipping into wide circulation. Yet as the Séro Zéro panel reminds the audience, more and more people in Quebec, in particular in Montreal's gay community, are now managing to get their hands on crystal meth. A 2005 Argus study commissioned by the Canadian Public Health Agency to survey the health of Montreal MSM (men who have sex with men) found that 3 % of those polled had used crystal in the two hours leading up to sexual activity during 1-49 % of all sex acts in the previous six months. 0.6% had used crystal in over 50% of their sexual encounters. Moreover, the finding that 33.6% of those who had been sexually active in the previous 6 months had had an unprotected anal sex encounter is all the more unnerving.

At the Image+Nation panel discussion, Ouellet tells the audience that he lost his closest friend to the drug. His avowal leads to the sharing of many more stories of hardships relating to the drug from both the audience and speaker François Trahan, a Quebecker who belonged to many "circuit boy" communities while living in New York, Fort Lauderdale and Montreal. Trahan argues that the potential of circuit parties to "bring together gays from different social classes came to a drastic halt with the arrival of crystal in 2001-2002." Visibly shaken after the screening, he is unequivocal in condemning the drug: "Crystal is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a community. And it's happening right now in the gay community."

This cautionary message also comes across powerfully from the back-to-back screening of two films covering the same ground. Nonetheless, there is a distinct difference in each film's quality and effectiveness. In Todd Ahlberg's Meth, the characters' testimonials are consistently overshadowed by a tackily sinister soundtrack and superfluous fast-paced drug montages à la Requiem for a Dream, that detract from the raw power of the individual chronicles. Meth's dozen-or-so subjects are astutely aware of their self-destructive behaviour, but can't seem to wean themselves off the drug. One interviewee shrewdly remarks that while circuit parties as a concept originated to raise funds for AIDS-related charities, there is a manifest incongruity with the new role of these gatherings as havens for crystal consumption and the drug's role in the resurgence in HIV infections. This is one of the film's strong suits: offering up deceptively seductive party shots which the participants later identify as mirages.

Meth also treads a fine line between exploration and exploitation in a scene where Andrew, a self-described "entrepreneur-slash-drug-dealer," is interviewed next to his mother, who trusts that he's cleaned up his act. As Ahlberg has already shown Andrew's near instantaneous relapse in scenes of him shooting up and subsequently spewing nonsensical pap at a frenzied pace, you can't help but wonder if Andrew's mother would later feel manipulated by the interview set-up. And were Andrew to succumb to his addiction, would she hold it against the filmmaker for not letting her know the truth earlier?

Jay Corcoran's Rock Bottom, in contrast, is a well-executed effort that smacks less of made-for-TV tricks. It paints a far more rounded portrait of the situation New York gay men currently face. Corcoran makes fully-fledged characters of his subjects and gives a voice to the community's psychiatrists, doctors and activists, who contextualize the battles being fought by these men.

In the film's opening sequence, we are acquainted with ex-porn star CJ, strung out on crystal and, by his own admission, horny in the bathroom of an East Village sex club. He tells the filmmaker, "I'm gonna suck a lot of dick, since I can't suck yours." What follows is a stirring documentary in which Corcoran follows his subjects as they struggle to live a drug-free existence. Over a two-year period, these men generously bare all to Corcoran in their personal spheres, which results in an infinitely more affecting film than the constraining, by-the-book interview-heavy format of Meth.

The film suggests that crystal's stronghold amongst gay males has to do with the dual pressure of living in a homophobic society where one is constantly at war with one's own sexual identity ("It's hard to be who we are sexually and tolerate ourselves doing what we want," says one character.) and having to conform to the unwholesome standards set by an image-based and sex-driven gay party culture. As Corcoran stated upon the film's release, "behind the crystal meth abuse is our sexuality, HIV, depression, shame and other attitudes, conditions and behaviours that many gay men may struggle with, in their darkest night, often alone."

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For information on Séro Zéro's Health Canada-funded substance abuse project, or to obtain more information about crystal meth, visit www.sero-zero.qc.ca. Trailers for both "Rock Bottom: Gay Men & Meth" and "Meth" can be viewed on the films' respective websites, www.wringinghands.com/rockbottom and www.babalupictures.com/meth.