WHEN AIDS drugs arrived in the 1990's, gay men's sexual health agencies began prioritising HIV management over prevention. Morphing from compassionate responders into self-serving careerists and box-ticking bureaucrats, proven prevention policies were sidelined in favour of a PC ideology that softened messages around "safer sex" and hard drugs and erased personal responsibility from the equation, in turn boosting demand for their lucratively-funded services. In so doing they facilitated and accelerated the spread of extreme health risks like HIV, crystal meth and GBL, ultimately spawning the 'chemsex' culture that has afflicted gay communities throughout the West and destroyed tens of thousands of lives...
• Last updated August 28, 2009
"First they IGNORE you, then they RIDICULE you, then they FIGHT you, then you WIN."
~ Mahatma Gandhi
HOW DID I come to create LIFE OR METH?
Once upon a time, come World AIDS Day, I would readily throwing cash into the gay men's HIV charity sector's collection tins to support "the cause". In the 1990s I ran a charity event which raised almost £500 for the leading UK HIV charity. Why? Because I believed a healthy community to be an empowered one. I still do. But I also believed that the people drawn to working within these bastions of future hope embodied selfless devotion, going about their roles with the community's interests and health needs overriding all other considerations.
Then, around 2000, I decided to knock on a few of their doors, beginning in the US, to enquire why nothing was being done to combat the ugly, deathly spectre of crystal meth, which was silently but stealthily pervading gay communities in the major coastal cities. One by one, friends and acquaintances I had known during many Stateside trips throughout the 1990s were being entrapped by meth's seductive high, and its devastating low was destroying their livelihoods, inflicting soul-destroying depressions and manias, triggering suicidal tendencies and inducing the compulsion for multiple, disinhibited, unsafe, turbo-charged sexual encounters.
Anecdotal and circumstantial evidence had been stacking up for several years, and on the West Coast for far longer. Yet, I was arriving at the uneasy conclusion that this new epidemic in our midst was being allowed to spread unhindered because no one, it seemed, was speaking out or acting against it.
My worst fears were realised when, one after the other, the same mental defense mechanisms whirred and clicked into place as the barely considered responses of each AIDS agency and community health organisation I approached amounted to nothing. In dull-eyed unison they spat their fury and roundly condemned and dismissed my anecdotal evidence out of hand, demanding sight of non-existent scientific proof and statistics to quantify my claims, disinterested as they were in investigating these themselves.
Surely it was their duty to assess the risk posed by crystal meth; to establish all possible outcomes and their probabilities; and to then act on the findings and disseminate the appropriate information to enable their communities to make informed decisions? Why, then, were they hiding behind the mantle of scientific uncertainty in claiming that meth is no more phychologically or physiologically dangerous than any other party drug, despite the personal experiences of thousands to the contrary? And why, in a spiraling delirium of left-brain denial, were they summarily rubbishing all suggestion of a link between crystal meth use and HIV infection?
"Condemnation without investigation is the highest form of ignorance."
~ Albert Einstein
Was meth such an unattractive subject for research funding that the leading gay men's HIV and sexual health organisations had developed an automatic filter that rendered it non-existent in their mindsets?
Or was there an altogether more profound, perhaps even sinister reason why they were ignoring, and therefore enabling, the greatest facilitator of the HIV virus to emerge since the advent of AIDS itself? Indeed, the more I thought about it the more it occurred to me that they were not interested in evidence at all; only their own concrete, routinely parroted song-sheet theories...
"It is dangerous to rely on the lack of a ‘smoking gun' in terms of the exact mechanism to deny the need to recognise and change one's behavior. This is analogous to the public outcry when I and others suggested in 1982 that gay men refrain from unprotected anal intercourse until we knew what was causing AIDS, as we definitely knew that unprotected anal sex was the leading route of infection or exposure to whatever the causal factor would turn out to be."
~ Dr. David Ostrow, MD PhD [Chicago MACS Centre]
I was being asked to prove something as abstract as a psychological motivation when it was overwhelmingly obvious that, for many users, meth erases the memory of every safe sex message that ever existed in a way that no other drug comes close to replicating while acting as an overpowering aphrodisiac that heightens every sensation and taboo, making the average user want to hump every person and lamp post in sight for hours and days on end, not stopping until his brain tires of producing so many happy chemicals that it will just give up, inducing a dark, desolate chasm of despair fueled by panic attacks and psychotic episodes that may cost him his job, life savings, home, friends and loved ones, or see him restrained in a psychiatric ward, OD'ed in a gutter somewhere, or on a slab of concrete at the local morgue. Why, I despaired, was this such a hard sell?
Then I was shown the door by the leading gay men's sexual health charities in the UK - The Terrence Higgins Trusts (THT) and GMFA ("Gay Men Fighting AIDS") - where meth was starting to make its ubiquitous presence felt. Would I now face the prospect of my own city, London, becoming a "crystal town" in a few short years? Its thriving, bustling gay scene reduced to a ghost town with the rest of the UK and Europe following close behind? Or take whatever action necessary to pre-empt its arrival by alerting the UK's gay community that meth is like no other drug in its propensity to wreak havoc and destroy lives? I had witnessed enough carnage and suffering elsewhere to know that I could not follow their appalling example, stick my head in the sand and wait for scientific evidence to catch up with what was happening right here, right now.
"A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury."
~ John Stuart Mill [Philosopher]
Even were such "proof" to finally emerge, what guarantee, then, that the findings would be accurate and not misrepresented or distorted? After all, habitual, speeding meth users that such research seeks to identify fall largely outside of the reach of face-to-face interviews and lengthy questionnaires that require focused attention spans and coherent answers. By the nature of their addiction, meth users tend either to be unaware or in complete denial that they have a problem or are just plain deluded about the extent of their usage, yielding unreliable data to be seized upon by dishonest HIV agencies to prove that no problem exists, thereby evading their duty to dip into their surplus funds and act. [See Statistics and Lies]
To focus on this work I sold my publishing business and, on April 15, 2001, flew to "viral hot-spots" of America's gay crystal meth epidemic in Palm Springs, then LA and Miami Beach before settling in New York - the epicentre of the affliction - for much of that year, witnessing for myself the social decay meth was wreaking on local gay communities. I stayed with a friend in his downtown Chelsea apartment (from where I saw the towers burn and implode on 9/11); someone I had known for years as being outgoing and exuberant and just the latest of many to have withdrawn into the meth haze, contracting HIV in the process and restructuring his lifestyle exclusively around his musty, dimly-lit, black-draped apartment strewn with home-delivered fast food cartons, a sparkling new 17" Mac to herald the arrival of 24/7 instant online cable connection, assorted meth paraphernalia and a revolving door of internet hook-ups of all shapes and sizes. This set-up would afford me a sobering insight into a hitherto secret, underground world...
I prepared my groundwork over the following year and, on November 1, 2002, LIFE OR METH was born. The site originally set out to warn and educate the London gay community about the oncoming storm but quickly became embraced and regarded globally as a powerfully truthful resource, striking a chord with meth users themselves and providing the impetus and wake-up call for almost 900,000 people to date - according to our online surveys - to quit, or at least want to quit, using.
LIFE OR METH's independent (i.e. unrestrained and unrestricted) global voice would, however, preclude it from receiving funding at local level, while international organisations like The Elton John AIDS Foundation snubbed my requests for funding on the basis that, to quote, "crystal is not an AIDS-related concern". It soon became glaringly apparent that in order to apply to the main sources of funding - or even just to achieve not-for-profit charitable status - I was expected to fall into line and practise political correctness as my new religion, or be refused help and nailed to the cross simply for speaking the truth.
I was not about to sell my soul and surrender my principles to this monumental fraud of blind conformity, even if it meant going against established convention and using every last penny I owned to get the truth about crystal meth and its devastating alliance with HIV out there and, perhaps, even save a few lives...
Next I sold my London home to support this near full-time, cost-intensive campaign, which required endless research, distribution of fliers, posters, adverts and interviews in the gay media, drumming up awareness in the mainstream press, working alongside the Met Police to petition the UK Home Office for crystal's UK reclassification from a Class B to Class A drug (finally accomplished January 19, 2007), and traveling from city to city to maintain a finger on the pulse of this destructive and deadly new virus that was insidiously and indiscriminately infiltrating gay communities globally.
10,000 hits later, in May 2003 Marc Cohen of the UFA (United Foundation of AIDS) invited me to Miami to oversee North America's first national meth campaign, Meth=Death; a provocatively confronting yet effective poster inspired by LIFE OR METH's upfront approach. I was then contacted by Stop AIDS in San Francisco and other enlightened gay men's health groups - including Positively Healthy (UK), Positive Action (San Diego), Legacy (Houston) and, in 2006, CAAMA (Sydney) - and a number of "meth task forces" across America who work in tandem with such organisations to confront the meth problem head-on. All shared LIFE OR METH's ethos and were keen to get realistic, hardhitting prevention messages that sought, above all else, to stigmatise crystal meth swiftly into the public domain, devoid of the arrogance, self-interest, vanity, square thinking and obtuseness that were roadblocks to effective action among many of the bureaucratised PC AIDS bodies (referred to from this point on as "AID$ Inc.")
"In the fall of 2005, Legacy staff conducted interviews with current meth users, recovering meth users and those at high-risk of becoming meth users to determine what types of messages were needed to alert people to the dangers. Participants said that a campaign should 'de-glam Tina' and provide a message that meth is not 'cool'. Others suggested shocking illustrations with a strong anti-meth message."
~ Eric Roland [Director of Education at Legacy]
As a result of their face-to-face research, four of LIFE OR METH's own posters were used by Legacy to promote meth awareness in Houston (Click on Legacy PDF link, left, for full details of this focus group survey).
• UFA's Meth=Death poster legitimised the stigmatisation of meth and stirred others across the US to take decisive, upfront action. In demand by everyone from high school teachers to CMA group meetings and Sheriffs' offices, the poster was the catalyst for all Stateside anti-meth campaigns that followed;
• Stop AIDS' San Francisco campaigns around living with AIDS (AIDS Is No Picnic) and meth (Crystal Mess) - vividly depicting the physically ravaging effects of full-blown AIDS and meth dependency - contributed to the largest decline in HIV and meth use among men who have sex with men (MSM) of all major US cities;
• LIFE OR METH has itself become the most effective global meth resource for MSM (men who have sex with men). Two-thirds of meth users accessing it have been inspired or empowered to quit - over 900,000 visitors to date (as of April 2016)! With 450,000+ hits in the UK alone, LIFE OR METH has been at the forefront of impeding the largescale advance of meth into London and other major European cities. [See Testimonials]
"It is no secret that a number of the groups receiving funds for what is called health education are in fact using their new status as government-approved and publicly funded bodies to promote a...political agenda. To look only at the most notorious case, in an expose of the [UK] Terrence Higgins Trust in August 1990, [medical] journalist Oliver Gillie wrote in The Independent of an organisation rent with political discord and pursuing political correctness at the expense of medical accuracy, and sometimes of common sense."
~ Ron Aitken [Free Life]
Those working in the AIDS industry have long been conditioned to regard those with HIV as victims since the early days of the epidemic, when MSM were afraid to get tested for fear they would be isolated and driven under-ground. Supposedly intended to counter HIV stigma, politically correct protocols, curriculums, "sensitivity training" programs and quality assurance measures were designed to ensure that HIV sector staff and volunteers remained totally non-judgmental (some exist to this day). Ultimately, political correctness has caused incalculable damage by disempowering HIV "victims" by removing personal responsibility and accountability from the choices that led to their condition, regardless of whether acquired accidentally, recklessly or intentionally.
Yet the failure to get tough and tackle HIV head-on on the pretext of protecting HIV "victims'" feelings has served only to increasingly soften, normalise, sexualise and even sleazify the virus's image among sexually active MSM, culminating in today's rife, in-your-face bareback/ 'chemsex' culture and, consequently, record HIV transmissions. Time after time, rather than attempting to pre-empt emerging problems such as meth, GBL or pick-up apps lulling clueless youngsters to drug fuelled sex parties the same technocratic, non-stigmatising PC approach to HIV itself are applied, serving also to legitimise, normalise and consequently sexualise and exacerbate the problem. Cumulatively, this pandering as opposed to preventive approach to health crises has inflicted a devastating toll on gay men's health not witnessed since the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic.
"I remember when we first started to consider an anti-
meth campaign and I saw some of the non-stigmatising 'manby-panby' campaigns. I remember saying that this isn't sex we are discussing, this is an illegal substance. I would never want to shame someone for having sex; a biological function and human nature. However, I should be able to shame someone for using an illegal substance, shouldn't I?"
~ Eric Roland [Director of Education at Legacy]
Inevitably, forward-thinking organisations are incessantly discredited by AID$ Inc. for their non-PC efforts to remedy the damage caused by AID$ Inc.'s failure to adopt a truthful and enlightened approach in tackling meth - and, by association, HIV - effectively. Despite our notable successes they unceasingly criticise our methods, particularly the use of realistic, in-your-face imagery designed to deglamorise meth and, not least, the HIV virus which, they claim, serve only to demonise meth users and HIVers alike; a patently patronising, long redundant response that lacks common sense and paints the target audience as stupid, and despite the fact that recovering meth users themselves often testify how graphic images of meth-ravaged individuals gave them the "tough love" and impetus they needed to awaken to their addiction and repair their shattered lives.
"Shock has a place in public health awareness where complacency has triggered significant increases in high-risk behaviours... It’s actually the argument that such campaigns DON’T work which is unsubstantiated."
~ Col [Sydney Star Observer]
By not stigmatising crystal, a climate of tolerance and acceptance is fostered; one that fuels the perception of meth as cool and chic and contributes to peer pressure to use or risk being ridiculed and isolated from the "action". Only after the arrival of campaigns like Meth=Death and San Francisco's Crystal Mess did "Tina" - which, by 2003, had become so thoroughly glamorised and interwoven into the fabric of North America's gay social scene that everyone, it seemed, was using - became universally frowned upon and socially unacceptable.
The same is also true of the HIV virus, for which hardhittting campaigns which shocked gay men into practising safe sex in the 1980s/early 1990s have long been superseded by sexually provocative ads that legitimise and glamorise the virus, paving the way for the open sale of bareback videos, the endorsement of sex-on-premises venues where condoms are routinely shunned, and a social/online culture in which the solicitation of "raw sex" and "bug chasing" raise barely a "judgmental" eyebrow.
"Rising infection rates...suggest that polite ads simply do not work. Anything less than graphic, in-your-face messages pale next to a Nike, GAP, or Harley-Davidson ad. AIDS is an ugly disease, and we have to get down and dirty with our ad campaigns and prevention efforts if we're going to staunch this epidemic."
~ James [HIV Stops With Me]