Recently, one-time Democratic donor Ed Buck was indicted following two drug overdose deaths in his West Hollywood apartment in 2017 and 2019. His arrest was long overdue, after continued allegations by Black gay men that Buck had forced them to do drugs in his apartment house and demands for answers coming from the LGBTQ+ community for two years with no action by authorities in response.
But amidst all the controversy about how Buck got away with this horrendous alleged behavior for so long, there is one piece missing: a real, in-depth conversation about the gay community’s ongoing struggle with crystal methamphetamine addiction.
The videos of Buck during his appearance at the Los Angeles County Courthouse show a gaunt shadow of a man. He was skeletal, with deep caverns where cheeks used to be and veins protruding from his neck to his forehead. While court filings charge that Buck’s sexual proclivity was to inject Black male escorts with meth and there is no proof yet that Buck himself was a meth addict – he appeared with the look of so many gay men — of all ages — who are addicted to meth.
It’s beyond time to start talking about it.
I’ve seen the devastating impacts of meth addiction firsthand. One of my closest friends started using crystal meth a couple of years ago. Previously a successful businessman, he has now lost all of his friends, his family and his business. He spends his days searching for meth. Ten years ago, I lost a partner to crystal addiction. He relapsed after two years of sobriety and eventually died on the street.
Meth is dangerous for many reasons — partially because it’s so cheap and can be made in a frying pan at home using sinus, cold and other over-the-counter medicines. It’s also readily available, being sold on the streets, on “hook-up” and dating apps, and in gay bars — often under the seemingly innocent name “Tina.”
At St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, the community health center I lead, we treat thousands of members of the LGBTQ+ community — and the overwhelming majority of patients who access treatment at our substance abuse programs are addicted to crystal meth.
As it stands, as little as 5% of crystal meth users can get and stay sober without institutional help. Yet this raging epidemic which has plagued and ravaged the gay community for over 20 years still bears little mention from national LGBTQ+ organizations, gay elected officials, and the mainstream media. This means there are few programs, resources, and virtually no government or private grants in place to combat a drug addiction so lethal that it literally alters the chemical make-up of the brain.
Additionally, in the gay community meth is linked to sex – meaning there is less inhibition and more risk for HIV and other STDs. And while PrEP may help prevent HIV infection, the CDC reports that syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia continued their record-breaking rise in 2018.
So many members of the LGBTQ+ community have already been impacted by the crystal meth epidemic – friends, lovers, partners and community leaders lost to the ravages of the worst drug we have ever seen. If we’re not careful, it could take countless more lives.
In my twenties, I lost countless friends and two partners to the AIDS epidemic. Today, I can’t help but draw correlations to the present-day plague ravaging my community.
During the AIDS epidemic, service organizations were formed and ACT-UP mobilized gay men and their allies to the streets. Many of us became politicized by fighting the AIDS epidemic and the refusal of the government to act. It’s time for us to take similar action now and start mobilizing around our community’s struggles with meth.
It is patently true that if the DA’s office had moved quickly in the Buck case, lives would have been saved. It is just as true that we are all standing by, silent, as thousands of our gay brothers die in the scourge of meth addiction.
We need political action, adequate funding to treat those addicted, new methods to break the cycle of addiction to this horrible drug, and the development of innovative education and prevention strategies to save our people from the death spiral of crystal meth addiction. But all of that starts with LGBTQ+ folks being honest about what’s going on in our community. We must begin to heal and move past this together.
Jim Mangia is president and CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, a nonprofit community health center providing services at 18 sites in downtown and South Los Angeles.