Tennessee’s gay community struggles with crystal meth

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“I never thought I’d find myself living in Donelson,” John Lasiter says over the breakfast buffet at Shoney’s one recent weekday morning. “I live right around here!”

One of the few remaining outlets after the chain’s 1990s explosion and subsequent scaling back, the Shoney’s in Donelson today is as busy as any one of them in its heyday.

We’re chatting over scrambled eggs, salty biscuits and some-greasy-some-crunchy strips of bacon while Christmas songs by the likes of Anne Murray, Alan Jackson, and Barbara Mandrell add a touristy color to the mood.

“Out & About Newspaper” readers are most familiar with John from his role in the play SITCOM, as well as his newfound relationship with SITCOM-writer/director Kaine Riggan. Much has changed over the last few months.

“I never thought I’d do drugs, growing up,” he says. “I moved here both to pursue a dream and escape a nightmare but I found you can’t run away from your problems.”

Within a few days of his arrival in Nashville, John was elated to get a job at one of the city’s busiest nightspots and, while he found a close-knit family of sorts among his co-workers, he also discovered a connection to the life of drugs he thought he’d left back in California.

John is not alone. Methamphetamine use (or “meth”) is no longer a coastal or major city problem. Tennessee’s rural expanse and proximity to other states has made it one of the nation’s leading producers of methamphetamine. Also, gay culture has historically had an affinity for drug experimentation. The combination of these two elements has produced an epidemic that few wish to discuss.

A recent “Nashville Scene” feature “Policing Gays” drew criticism of Metro Police for its apparent targeting of gays in undercover sting operations involving Internet-arranged meetings for sex and drug (“party and play”) encounters. While the feature profiled the beating and arrest of a man not involved with methamphetamine, the offered justification for the enforcement effort was tips made to the police department about a developing gay sex / meth network.

Yes, the arrest profiled in the “Nashville Scene” had shaky legal footing, and, yes, the selective targeting raises many civil liberty concerns. However, the problem of meth in the gay community cannot be dismissed or blamed on others.

John found the connection all too real, and dangerous.

“After about a month here, I was just, I guess, having a bad day and just found myself driving around downtown looking for drugs. I picked up a guy – he thought I was looking for something else – and asked him for drugs.”

John looks off now, certainly embarrassed to admit he could fall so far, but still determined to tell the story the way he lived it. “More often than not, in those cases I got ripped off. With bad drugs.”

“Then I got to know everyone better at [work] and, then, just started asking around for it. Every night after work we’d get together, sometimes it would turn into an all night diversion. We’d drive all night looking for some.” By his count, all but two of his coworkers consistently used the drug.

“What’s funny, or sad, now is that I always thought everyone else was worse than me [that they were abusing more],” he says about his friends and fellow crystal meth users, “until they came to me, saying ‘you better slow down.’”

John details the growing proximity he developed with his habit.

“At first, I would be asking a friend of a friend of a friend for some, then a friend of a friend, then just a friend, then one day I thought, ‘I could make money here.’”

Being a drug dealer didn’t last long. As it is well documented in the Steven Levitt/Stephen Dubner book, “Freakonomics,” (William Morrow/Harpercollins), street level drug dealers rarely earn more than a typical front-line McDonald’s employee. The chapter on drug dealers in Chicago masterfully explains, simply, why drug dealers “still live with their moms” by holding up the economic hierarchy of the drug trade alongside that of the world’s most ubiquitous fast food joint.

“For somebody that insecure, and I have no qualms about that,” he says, “it was good to have people wanting me, needing to see me, to find me.”

In an article for the New Yorker (“Higher Risk”) earlier this year, writer Michael Specter traced the rise in drug use, particularly crystal meth, along with an increase (in major cities) in STD diagnoses and their link to Internet sex.

And it appears to be limited to gay people.

Back in August, “Chicago Tribune” columnist Steve Chapman expressed his fatigue upon learning that crystal meth has been declared by some (most recently, “Newsweek”) as “ America’s Most Dangerous Drug.”

“The drug war is sort of like horror movies,” he wrote. “A new monster is always needed, and the new monster is never much different than the old one.” He adds that the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a unit of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, reports:

“That 5.2 percent of all Americans age 12 and older have tried the drug at least once. But only 0.3 percent are currently using it. That means the addiction rate is no more than one in 17. The addiction rate for tobacco, by contrast, is more than one in three. For alcohol, it’s about one in 12.”

So, in America, the gay community has its own unique drug problem. By now we all know about the rise, the sexual inhibition, the improved amount of energy gained from crystal meth use. We also know about the severe fallout that comes after use of the drug. The title of a new book, written by Duncan Osborne, called “Suicide Tuesday: Gay Men and the Crystal Meth Scare” pretty much makes clear what so few users, it seems, think of “in the moment.”

John Lasiter knows this. The drug dealers that he met downtown in his first few months in Nashville offered him everything; it seems, except crystal meth. “They always had crack,” he says. “They smoked it, and I was always like, ‘No!’”

In his boyfriend, Kaine, it appears John found his way off drugs.

“There are some days when I really want it,” he says, “but Kaine, he’s never tried it, ever, and I just wish I could’ve been like him.”

He’d love to someday start an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous, he says, “but without the religion. There’s got to be a way we can get people off drugs and still, at the same time, you know…” His voice trails off while he finds the words.

“You can still be you, but just be off drugs, the addiction, you know?”