Let's begin with the simplest fact there is about crystal methamphetamine in Halifax: it’s not here.
The Halifax Regional Police Service has never arrested anybody for possession of the drug, a powerful stimulant that’s sold in rock form like crack and can be smoked in a pipe or, when it’s in powder form, eaten, snorted or dissolved in water and injected. “You want to talk about meth?” detective Ken Burton of the drug section says. “It’s going to be a short conversation.”
Strictly speaking, he’s right.
Here’s another fact about the drug, which is known as jib among teens (users are “jibbernauts”), Tina in gay circles and crank, speed, crystal, ice, chalk and glass: it is here.
On Halifax streets, people are scoring ecstasy laced with meth. But there’s another less intentional way people are using meth in Halifax: dealers are cutting—or completely substituting—crack cocaine with meth.
“People are saying that the crack high is different,” says Patty Melanson, a nurse who covers health care services for Phoenix Youth Programs, an organization working with homeless and at-risk youth aged 16 to 24 in Halifax. Different how? Here’s how: a woman smokes what she thinks is a rock of crack and instead of being high for 15 minutes, she can be cranked for 15 hours.
Cindy MacIsaac, executive director at Direction 180, says visitors to the Gottingen Street-based methadone program are describing the same thing. There are “people reporting that the cocaine they’re using is different—the high is longer, they’re staying up longer.
“You do stay up on cocaine, but this…this keeps you going. You’re smoking something and suddenly you’re up all night.”
Cocaine-based drugs are already cut, of course; that’s where the money’s made. MacIsaac says a common filler agent in Halifax is Drano. But there are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns. Imagine smoking what you thought was a marijuana joint Saturday night and not coming back down until you crash sometime Sunday evening. Crack isn’t pot (neither, for that matter, is meth), but the comparison sticks: when you buy crack in Halifax right now you don’t know what you’re getting. Or what you’re getting into.
MacIsaac says it’s no accident Halifax crack is being cut with crystal meth, a drug that targets the central nervous system and jacks up a user’s heart rate, body temperature, rate of breathing and blood pressure. “There are different ways of introducing a drug and, you know, already inhibitions are down and whether this is meth or whether they don’t, people are in a position where they’re not able to make an informed decision. It can be a way that people introduce it to a community.”
There is a third way crystal meth is making an advance into Halifax. In the headlines.
News stories with local focus are creeping into Nova Scotia papers now that the cops—and even more so the RCMP—are talking about the drug. “Cranking up war on speed” and “Cops on prowl for meth labs” are two examples.
The local media’s interest has been piqued no doubt too by the attention being paid to the drug across the US and in Canada’s west, where politicians and police routinely refer to the drug like it’s a vector-borne disease or a natural disaster. Vancouver’s The Province ran a week-long series in April 2005 called “The Menace of Meth,” using headlines like “Meth ‘ravaging’ towns in BC” and “‘An avalanche coming this way.’”
Nova Scotia is an anomaly in the march of meth. The province is one of the last Canadian jurisdictions to face an influx of the drug, together with Canada’s north and the rest of the Atlantic provinces.
In parts of the American Midwest—Montana, notably—and in spots like downtown Vancouver, crystal meth has been called an “epidemic.” What that word means in the context of meth isn’t always clear. A public spat between Maple Ridge, BC mayoral candidate Gordon Robson and then-mayor of Vancouver Larry Campbell took place in October 2005 when Robson called meth an “epidemic” in BC and Campbell called the assertion “garbage.”
“If Larry Campbell doesn’t think this is an epidemic,” Robson, who is now mayor of Maple Ridge, told CTV news, “he should get down to the streets of Vancouver and see.”
Maybe it’s all semantics or tit-for-tat politicking, but calling meth an epidemic sure is a convenient way to lend a sense of desperation to what’s certainly a grave—if largely indefinable and possibly unknowable—situation.
You know what else is convenient?
Treating crystal meth like it’s a street drug, one that’s only for prostitutes and the people we call “street kids.”
Meth is a boon to people surviving on the streets. It’s written all over the January 2006 research paper, The drugs are here. What are you going to do about it? An Assessment of Crystal Meth and Other Drug Use Among Street-Involved Youth in Halifax, NS. One research assistant writing in the document calls it “the perfect street drug.”
It is. When you’re on meth, you don’t want to sleep and you don’t want to eat. Presto. Two primary concerns are off the list of day-to-day struggles of life on the street. Getting off the drug when you’re working to secure a job and find affordable housing? That’s another story.
As much as meth keeps users awake, it keeps them going too. Really going. And that can be as helpful to young politicians as it is to surgeons and stressed-out moms. Mick Jagger said mother’s little helper helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day. Who says it has to be a tranquilizer?
“Crystal meth appeals to a huge demographic,” says nurse Patty Melanson. “It appeals to the young man who wants to play basketball and maintain his place on the debating team and not go to bed at night so he can get everything done. It appeals to a street youth who needs to stay up all night to protect their territory or who doesn’t have any money for food. It attracts partiers. It’s attractive to business people, people in sales. And it’s a synthetic drug. So people don’t see it like a dirty drug, like crack.”
Perhaps they also fail to take in the fact that smoking meth is akin to drinking an assortment of under-the-kitchen-sink chemicals. Meth is made with a mix of solvents and highly reactive chemicals—principally iodine crystals, red phosphorus and decongestant drug pseudoephedrine. Users probably also don’t see the nervousness it’s reported to instill, the irritability, paranoia, tremors and the sometimes violent behaviour.
Know what else crystal meth is good for? Losing weight. A lot of it. Up to 18 kilograms per month, according to a February CanWest News story. That’s 40 pounds. But how do you look good in your prom dress when there’s not enough make-up in the bottle to cover your facial lesions and your teeth look like caramelized brown sugar?
Want to know one more thing that’s convenient about meth? Imagining it’s strictly an urban problem. Nope. Meth is a rural drug too.
According to the province of Ontario’s Crystal Meth Working Group, of the 17 meth lab busts that took place in the province from mid-2003 to mid-2005, many were in rural regions.
Rural Alberta RCMP reported a more than tenfold increase in arrests for meth trafficking between 1998 and 2002, a trend the agency attributes in a Strathcona RCMP newsletter to “the criminal element to rural areas to avoid detection.”
Cape Breton Regional Police is watching several homes now where suspected meth labs operate. While Halifax Regional Police hasn’t made a single meth bust, the CBRP has already made several. “In sleepy communities the local vet gets arrested because he’s got a meth lab in his basement,” says Patty Melanson.
When meth really comes to Nova Scotia—and it is coming, no one denies that—it won’t just be in the tobacco-lined pockets of the crackheads. And it shouldn’t be a convenient rationale for ignoring the requests of panhandlers and another made-up reason to steer clear of squeegee-toting youth at the Willow Tree. Crystal meth could be in the knock-off Louis Vuitton bags of the mall rats and in the briefcase of your periodontist.
“I was very interested,” says Halifax youth outreach worker Dorothy Patterson, “to find out that one of our youth’s crystal meth dealers out west was a 17-year-old girl from a middle-class home who went to school. That was the norm.”
Here's another simple fact about meth: it’s been around for a long time.
Amphetamines—meth’s parent drug—have been manufactured since the late 19th century. Pill-form amphetamines were prescribed during World War II to boost alertness and amphetamines have been used in nasal decongestants and to treat depression. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, your grandmother might have carried amphetamines around in her purse—mine did—as a prescribed weight loss drug. Or, she might have bought them illegally, doubled the dose and taken them as “pep pills” or “Bennies.”
Methamphetamine is stronger, longer lasting and easier to make. Its potential for abuse and the intensity of its high is like amphetamines to the power of 10. Methamphetamine is sometimes prescribed—for narcolepsy and obesity—but its central use hasn’t been therapeutic.
Meth simmered on the fringes for six-odd decades before becoming news in the 1980s. I have always remembered a December 1989 story in Spin magazine about crystal meth. The profile was practically apocalyptic, evoking images of the coming armies of meth zombies. Meth users didn’t march across Canada and the US so much as they straggled forward one by one, a user here, a user there. Now meth is on the radar again.
So. Old drug, new interest. According to the recent Assessment of Crystal Meth document (the one that outlines the chilling reasons meth is “the perfect street drug”), meth is experiencing a recent wave of popularity among 14- to 25-year-olds.
The question is: why now?
The answer: no one’s certain.
Well how about this question instead: why has it been so slow to come to Halifax?
Chalk it up to sentimentality.
“The drug culture likes to use what they’re familiar with,” says drug detective Ken Burton. “And primarily in our city, it’s either marijuana and cocaine.
“It’s like when you go to Cape Breton and they drink Keith’s. There are lots of other brand names, but they drink Keith’s. And if you go to the hunting camp, it’s rum. People like to stay with what they’re familiar with. I think here you run into the same thing with your drug users.”
“I think that’s a fair comment,” says Melanson, “but I don’t think it’s not going to come.” What will be the tipping point for meth in Halifax? What will push it over cocaine? And when?
There are no answers to these questions. And that only helps to confuse our understanding of meth.
Meth is two things at once. It’s merely the dope of the hour (there always has to be at least one), but at the same time it’s also something totally different—a challenge to addiction counselling, social service and outreach organizations and the environment. But how do you reconcile those competing notions? It’s just another drug; it’s totally different. How should we talk about crystal meth?
For most media outlets, there’s only one tack to take—sensationalism. No wonder. Terror is an effective way to draw in readers; piquing watchers’ morbid curiosity is profitable.
Not everyone’s buying in, though.
Online magazine Slate editor-at-large Jack Shafer deconstructed in late March a Washington Post meth story called “The Next Crack Cocaine?” which he says “embraces meth cliché, half truth, hyperbole and broken logic at every opportunity.”
Portland, Oregon newsweekly Willamette Week unleashed a lengthy investigation of the even lengthier—we’re talking almost 300 stories (and counting) long—investigation of crystal meth use launched in 2004 by Portland daily The Oregonian.
The long of the Willamette Week’s March-published teardown is this: The Oregonian’s statistics are shaky and the series is grounded in a “rhetoric of crisis,” misleading readers “into believing they face a far greater scourge than the facts support.”
The title of the scathing analysis says it all: “How The Oregonian manufactured an epidemic, politicians bought it and you’re paying.”
These critiques of meth reporting are being monitored by ethics investigator Kelly McBride, who works in journalism education for Florida-based The Poynter Institute. She recently posted her “Meth Wars” column on Poynter Online (in which, actually, McBride argues the Willamette Week’s knockdown of The Oregonian’s meth series is way off).
In Nova Scotia, where meth is just beginning to feather its nest, the tone of news coverage is only getting established. Will Reefer Madness-style rhetoric rule the roost? On April 12, the Daily News’s David Rodenhiser wrote a well-balanced editorial, only tending to overstatement when he called meth a “plague” and warned of “an advancing scourge of drug addiction.” An April 17 editorial in the Chronicle-Herald dubbed the drug “instantly addictive” and called it, yes, an “epidemic.” No definition given. According to the editorial headline, we’re “Bracing for meth madness.”
But what about the here and now?
Phoenix Youth Programs nurse Patty Melanson says, “I don’t know what the true picture is. I don’t know that any of us know. But, like any drug you have to be aware. And being informed is part of prevention.”
Melanson meets me on a warm afternoon to talk about meth and have a cup of tea. The nurse knows a lot about meth and its issues. It shows. She barely skips a beat answering questions. Melanson must be used to entering a place and getting down to work: she splits her days between Phoenix Youth Programs’s drop-in centre on Coburg Road and Phoenix’s emergency youth shelter on Tower Road. She works at Direction 180 too.
“We don’t want this fear-mongering, like, it’s going to take over our children and take over our families,” she says.
It brings up that question again: how should we talk about meth?
If the easy way out is to sensationalize the drug’s impact, to fear-monger, how do we head in the direction of level-headedness without understating meth’s dangers?
How should we talk about meth? It’s just another drug; it’s totally different. Which is it?
It's such a dirty dirty drug,” says Cindy MacIsaac from her street-facing office at methadone program clinic Direction 180.
She’s busy today. Actually, it seems like MacIsaac’s busy every day. Direction 180, on Gottingen Street, positively buzzes.
Methadone is a synthetic narcotic taken daily to help users wean from heroin or other opiate addictions. The dozen or so clients there the day I visit are eager to see the nurse, get their prescription and get on with their day. They chirp hellos and commiserate the state of uptown—“it’s easier to get crack out there than it is to buy a pack of smokes,” one guy tells another. The atmosphere is jovial. But MacIsaac is talking about meth and she’s not sharing the mood.
“If you’re a crack addict and you have children, your children are going to be neglected,” MacIsaac says to illustrate the difference between meth and crack, the drug it’s commonly compared to. “If you’re a crystal meth addict and you’re smoking crystal meth, then that child, not only are they neglected, chances are they’re inhaling all of those toxins. And that damage cannot be repaired.”
There are other reasons crystal meth is different from crack. And it’s not just the cheaper and significantly longer-lasting high. (Crack is about $20 a stone for a half-hour-or-shorter high; crystal meth is, MacIsaac says, about $5 for anywhere from a six- to 15-hour high. Severely diluted crack or crystal meth-cut crack can cost less.)
What makes meth different, too, is the behaviour of its users.
Dorothy Patterson works at ARK Youth Outreach on Gottingen Street, the organization that authored the Assessment of Crystal Meth document. ARK Youth Outreach is known as simply the ARK, and it’s first-and-foremost a drop-in spot for youth aged 16 to 24. “If we’ve known someone for a couple of years, we’ll let them stay to 25,” Patterson says, “and if there’s someone on the street and they’re 14, we’ll work with them.”
Patterson is soft-spoken and kind-eyed, and she’s been at the ARK since it opened six-and-a-half years ago. The drop-in centre sees 35 to 40 youths (and several companion dogs) cross the threshold every day. You’d never know it’s there. There’s no sign on the door. And that’s on purpose: “We asked the youth to give us a name,” Patterson explains. “And we offered money, but nobody wanted to put a name on the door. One of the youths said, and everybody agreed, ‘people’s homes don’t have names.’”
Patterson (along with the ARK’s two other staffers) do “the things that build a community—make a meal, welcome someone, help someone with an addiction, whether that means just listening or networking them with drug dependency, or Mainline or Direction 180….Really,” she says, “it’s whatever comes out of a relationship.”
Sometimes those relationships work around the intrusion of crystal meth. “My observation is that the folks who are on crack,” Patterson says, “maybe for a few days you won’t see that kind of crazy behaviour. But with meth, there’s a real unpredictability to it. It’s just so exaggerated, that it becomes hard to do anything and hard to follow through on anything.”
Tracy Bowler’s seen it. That’s not her name, but this much is real: she’s used meth a couple of times. Bowler is 21 and she arrived in Halifax eight months ago from Ottawa with her band. She lives on Gottingen and goes to the ARK now and again. She’s done research and writing work for the organization on the topic of meth and back in Ottawa she saw a lot of people taking it.
“Within about two weeks you can see them sweating when they’re talking to you,” she says. “You can really see it but they can’t because everything’s going by so fast. They don’t understand. They don’t eat or sleep and they can see benefits in that. A lot of girls used to take it to lose weight. And they have no idea what they could possibly be getting into when they’re using it—19- and 20-year-old women on the club scene. They’re very shifty. They’re fidgeting. They can’t stop moving around.”
Is meth behaviour really worse than crack behaviour? The only evidence is anecdotal. But people’s behaviour is important—perhaps supremely important—when you’re talking about addiction, says Phoenix nurse Patty Melanson.
“What that person took to elicit that behaviour, we can figure out later,” she says. “But, you know, it’s the behaviour and what it does to that individual’s life that’s important. There’s a hype around meth—is it coming? Is it here? Well, yeah, I don’t know, maybe. that kind of drug really messes with a person’s life. And meth really does a good job psychotically.”
Melanson’s talking about meth-induced psychosis.
A little background: it used to be common knowledge that hard drugs could cause psychotic episodes. You know all those whispered stories about Jane or Louise or Tyrone who took a hit of acid/caplet of ecstasy/puff of pot and became suddenly, seriously and sometimes irreversibly mentally ill? It doesn’t happen that way.
“Drugs just speed the process along,” says Melanson. “They can exacerbate or bring on a psychotic episode earlier than one would normally have one.” But meth is different.
“With meth,” Melanson says, “people who would never normally have a psychotic episode have a mental illness for the rest of their lives. That’s totally different from other drugs. Ten percent of meth users who have a psychotic episode never clear their psychoses.”
That’s the brain. But crystal meth also does to the body what other drugs can’t.
According to one former crystal meth user now living in Halifax, meth’s knack for quelling hunger and the need for sleep are unequalled by other hard drugs—“the side effects…make heroin or cocaine healthier alternatives,” he says.
Then there’s “meth mouth.” You might have seen pictures of the kind of tooth decay typically found in the mouths of those misusing crystal meth—crumbled copper-coloured teeth and pus-imbued gums.
The prevailing theory is that some of meth’s side effects—like tooth-grinding and dry mouth—and the harsh chemical make-up of the drug, cause extreme, irreparable damage.
But there is debate.
Slate’s Jack Shafer, the editor who criticized the Washington Post’s meth coverage, called meth mouth “our latest moral panic” in an August 2005 editorial. Shafer says meth mouth reporting often focuses, questionably, on meth itself as a sole cause of poor dental health, rather than drug addiction generally. Reporters, he says, are ignoring common causes of meth mouth, such as a lack of interest in brushing and flossing—causes that aren’t limited to meth users alone.
Bottom line: whether it’s the meth itself or the overall dental health of meth-dependent youth and adults, meth mouth exists. And according to a November 2005 story in the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association, by Chicago-based Gary Klasser, dental professionals are seeing a rise in meth mouth (though one busy Halifax dentist I talked to said she has yet to see a case in her practice and hasn’t heard of any colleagues treating it). In other centres, Klasser says, dental practices need to change to accommodate meth mouth patient care.
What else makes meth different? Take your pick: meth is simple enough to make in a bathtub or a car trunk; simple to blow up too. (That’s often how cook operations are discovered—RCMP synthetic drug division constable Paul Robinson said at a media-attended crystal meth briefing in Cole Harbour this spring, “Seventy to 80 percent of labs are found by first responders” such as firefighters, uniformed police officers and emergency health services personnel.) And cooking meth creates a generous amount of toxic waste (the number that’s thrown around most is six pounds of waste for every pound of sellable meth); Patty Melanson guesses, “if someone’s making meth, they’re not necessarily following HRM’s environmental guidelines to dump their waste.”
Significantly, the addiction is quicker, based on reports to Melanson and Direction 180’s Cindy MacIsaac and the ARK’s Dorothy Patterson. More so even than crack.
What it all adds up to is this: meth is impressive. “Not that other drugs haven’t impressed me or that I don’t have concerns with other drugs,” says Melanson, “but the effect of this drug to the individual and to the people around that person and even to the community is more significant than most drugs.”
Ken Burton’s concern with meth is the flux and the flow.
He’s the detective—that’s what they call a sergeant when he’s in a specialized division, like the drug section—who told me a chat about Halifax meth would be a short one since no city cop has ever made an arrest for the drug. Burton’s not glib. He’s direct. His division, other local police agencies and the RCMP are right now developing a strategy for the blooming of crystal meth.
Burton, who works as part of a street-level team, doesn’t spout doomsday talk about meth. He’s level-headed and he doesn’t say “epidemic” once. He refers to the expected “establishment” of the drug in Halifax and the planning that goes hand-in-hand: “We don’t want to be caught with our pants down.”
Burton’s “thing with crystal meth” is how easy the ingredients are to come by compared to the goods needed to make other drugs. “If we have a large cocaine bust,” he says, “the cost of crack might go up, because the dries up. But if you have a big crystal meth bust, they go out to Wal-Mart and get more ingredients and away they go.”
Maybe not anymore.
Three common ingredients make up crystal meth: iodine tincture crystals, red phosphorus from a matchbook strike pad and pseudoephedrine.
Iodine tincture and matches you can get at any number of stores across the province, ditto for the other ingredients needed to distill and cook meth—denatured alcohol, distilled water, acetone, muriatic acid and lye. You can make substitutions when it comes to some of those chemicals, but not with pseudoephedrine. If you want to make meth you have to have it. And the only place it’s easy to come by is in decongestants like Sudafed.
After an April 10 recommendation from the National Association of Pharmacy Regulatory Authorities, drugs containing pseudoephedrine are now behind the counter at pharmacies in Nova Scotia and in some other provinces. The medications have been removed from corner stores and gas store shelves entirely.
In May, Deveaux, the NDP MLA for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage, introduced a private member’s bill to make these recommendations law. “Hopefully,” he says, “there’s time to do something.”
The justice critic’s bill passed, and with some added deterrents. According to the legislation, people possessing high-density ammonium nitrate fertilizer or anhydrous ammonia fertilizer (which speed up the meth cooking process) must report missing or stolen amounts to the office of the minister of justice; a list will also be kept of purchasers of these products.
Cindy MacIsaac at Direction 180 is optimistic: “That’s a proactive approach and there needs to be awareness.” She’s also realistic: “There’s always a way to get the stuff.”
One part of Kevin Deveaux’s bill that didn’t pass was the creation of a government crystal meth task force. The Tories wouldn’t support it. “They say they already have something like it,” Deveaux says.
The NDP idea was to create a working group not just with HRM police and “people on the ground like those at Direction 180,” Deveaux says, but also with smaller police departments in towns like Stellarton and Wolfville.
“We’re so used to drugs being an urban issue,” he says. “We put the programs into urban centres and is going in through the back door in rural communities. Direction 180 isn’t in Annapolis Royal or Lawrencetown or Havre Boucher.”
And what about Direction 180’s role in all of this? Or, for that matter, the role of Phoenix Youth Programs, or the ARK or other harm reduction programs like Mainline Needle Exchange in Halifax, which recently launched a year-long crystal meth needs-assessment study and education campaign.
Curbing crystal meth use doesn’t just lie in asking pharmacists to scrutinize the buying habits of Sudafed purchasers. And it’s not just about landlords and property owners reporting the tell-tale signs of meth labs—strong chemical smells, windows covered with garbage bags and dying vegetation.
A strategy for limiting the establishment of crystal meth in Nova Scotia might also be found in shifting the way we understand addiction and changing the way we support our fellow community members who misuse drugs.
In fact, limiting the appeal of crystal meth might be partly in this: stop the talk of extremes, escape what Jack Shafer calls a “moral panic,” quit the sensationalism and treat crystal meth—at least in part—like any other hard drug in our communities. Remember what Patty Melanson said? “What that person took to elicit that behaviour, we can figure out later…it’s the behaviour and what it does to that individual’s life that’s important.”
You'll recall the appeal of meth for people on the streets: no need for sleep, no need to eat—two big worries disappear. At least temporarily.
Simon Fraser University researcher Steven Kates illustrates another perceived benefit of crystal meth in a 2004 study of the drug’s use among homeless youth in downtown Vancouver called “How Crystal Meth Spreads Among Homeless Youth.” He writes: “By preventing sleep temporarily solves their safety issues and helps them to protect their possessions. It also allays fear.”
If you can appreciate that logic, you can see where social support for vulnerable communities becomes part of the equation to keep meth at bay in Nova Scotia. Not only that, ARK Youth Outreach’s Assessment of Crystal Meth document tells you why you should care: “We are all implicated in the situation of youth homelessness and high rates of drug misuse among these youth.”
Searching for housing is a big part of Dorothy Patterson’s job at the ARK. “Even if they do want to get off the street but they don’t have a job and they’re on assistance,” she says, “they only get $235 per month for rent and $190 to spend on food and clothes and phone and everything else.”
Is finding affordable housing a challenge? That doesn’t even cover it. “I know of a few rooms in the city you can rent for $90 a week,” Patterson says.
Of course, there are many pieces to the puzzle. Finding apartments for every homeless and under-housed meth user or potential meth user doesn’t make the problem disappear. But it’s a start. And there are myriad other social issues that can encourage drug dependency which can be addressed—visible or invisible minority status, poor health, lower literacy levels, for instance. These issues span the urban-rural divide, and cross class and gender boundaries too; conveniently, so does meth.
“What I’ve learned about drugs over the years is that you have to acknowledge the good that they do for people,” Melanson says. “Without acknowledging that good, you can’t understand an addiction. And when I talk about good, I don’t mean helping people. I mean the perception, or the appeal. It’s the perception in that individual’s mind of the good it’s doing.”
“So, for a population of individuals who already have an impairment of some kind,” Melanson says, “because of lack of education or nurturing or attachment issues, the moment they start using crystal meth, it’s clarity. I’m on top of the world and I feel good about myself. And then when you come off it, if you’ve never felt good about yourself and you’ve felt good about yourself for the past 12 hours, well I’d want that back too.”
“These are people whose hopes have been shattered for so long,” adds Patterson. “And suddenly they feel like they can conquer the world.”
“I don’t get the sense that we have government or social policy that addresses that kind of issue,” says Melanson. “This is a health issue.”
Melanson reminded me of something when she said that. A May 2005 Michael Specter story in The New Yorker called “Higher Risk: Crystal meth, the Internet, and dangerous choices about AIDS.”
I went looking for Robert Allan at the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia to fill me in on the Nova Scotia perspective of Specter’s argument—that there’s a link between crystal meth use and a rise in HIV transmission rates, after many years of decline, among gay men in large US centres.
Allan—a welcoming man with a messy desk, golf tchotchkes and a poster in his Roy Building office that says, in part, “to play 18 holes in 54 strokes is possible”—couldn’t oblige. Still, the executive director of the ACNS knows a lot about crystal meth.
“Five or six years ago I wouldn’t talk about it at all in my job,” says Allan. “I kept asking anybody I knew who frequented bars and frequented bathhouses in the area, party networks. People would say there’s a lot of coke, there’s a lot of marijuana. No crystal. A year ago that started to change.”
Allan also has statistical knowledge of meth use among Nova Scotia men from a survey the ACNS conducted last summer called Sex Now. The document collected info from over 310 gay, bi, two spirited and straight men that have sex with men (45 of the total lived outside HRM).
Here’s what it says: four or five percent of the men surveyed were “casual users” of crystal meth (no description was attached to term “casual”). A higher number use cocaine on a casual basis; a substantially higher number use marijuana or alcohol. “Those stats are about comparable with the ones coming out of Montreal right now,” Allan says.
Here’s the kicker: “Guys who use crystal meth don’t engage in unsafe activities any more than guys who don’t,” Allan says.
“There’s a very, very minor relationship. The stereotype is: use crystal meth, and have lots of unsafe sex. Our data show a very small difference, but it’s not something that makes you immediately concerned.”
The AIDS Coalition’s focus is gay men’s health. And while there are meth-related health risks “and we need to take those very seriously,” ultimately, Allan says, “there are other concerns that come out of the survey.” In short: Michael Specter’s New Yorker argument isn’t borne out in the ACNS’s Sex Now stats.
Is it a big American city thing? Or just more sensationalizing the “epidemic” of crystal meth?
Robert Allan is cautious. “I want to make sure I answer in a way that limits me to what I know,” he says. “I think it happens with every new drug that comes along.”
He explains. There was marijuana, then poppers, then coke, then ecstasy and K, and “now it’s crystal meth. Here’s what I see in the research: some older guys say this comes in a long line of serious drugs…and in 10 years we’re going to be talking about another one.
“Is this simply,” he says, “that these are the guys using ecstasy and Viagra 10 years ago and now they’re using crystal? Or, these are the guys using mescaline 30 years ago and now they’re using crystal? Or, are there people who truly had one way of behaving and the introduction of crystal meth completely changed them? I suspect it’s a little of all of the above.” But, he says, “we tend to focus on the extreme.”
It gets back to that nagging question: how should we talk about crystal meth? And Allan is struggling with it. Its implications in our communities—gay, straight, middle class, homeless, urban, rural—shouldn’t be understated. But is overstatement any more helpful? How do we talk about meth? It’s just another drug; it’s totally different. Which is it?
“I don’t want to—in any way, shape or form—suggest that we should just let go,” Allan says. “There are some very serious health concerns. But we also have very serious rates of alcohol abuse, some very serious rates of other drug use. We have other health concerns as well. This is on the list and it’s important. But it’s also one of the current sexy ones that everyone wants to talk about.”
Direction 180 executive director Cindy MacIsaac struggles with the question too. And so does drug detective Ken Burton. “We need to be aware and we can’t ignore it,” MacIsaac says. “But we don’t need to sensationalize it.”
Burton agrees. “We have to be prepared,” he says. “But there’s a fine balance here. And we could be creating a paranoia.”
Tracy Bowler, who’s seeing the slow advance of meth into Halifax the way she watched it gain ground growing up in suburban Ottawa, says any way to get the message across is worthwhile. “Even if you make it sound sensational,” she says, “it’s better that it’s out there. So at least people can see it.”