Tennessee’s gay community fights crystal meth


“I never thought I would end up in Donelson,” John Lasiter said over Shoney’s breakfast buffet on a recent weekday morning. “I live right here!”

One of the few outlets left after the chain’s explosion in the 1990s and subsequent downsizing, Shoney’s in Donelson is now as busy as any of them in its heyday.

We chat over scrambled eggs, crackers and greasy, crispy bacon strips while Christmas carols by Anne Murray, Alan Jackson and Barbara Mandrell add touristy color to the mood.

Readers of this site may know John best from his role in the play SITCOM, as well as his new relationship with SITCOM writer/director Kaine Riggan. A lot has changed in the past few months.

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

Within days of arriving in Nashville, John was thrilled to find a job at one of the city’s busiest nightclubs, 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 had forgotten in California.

Jean is not alone. Methamphetamine (or “methamphetamine”) use is no longer a coastal or big city problem. Tennessee’s rural expanse and proximity to other states have made it one of the nation’s top methamphetamine producers. Additionally, gay culture has always had an affinity for experimenting with drugs. The combination of these two elements has produced an epidemic that few wish to discuss.

A recent “Nashville Scene” article “Policing Gays” drew criticism from the Metropolitan Police for its apparent targeting of gay people in undercover operations involving organized meetings on the Internet for sex and drug encounters (“party and Game”). While the news story described the beating and arrest of a man not involved in meth, the rationale offered for the enforcement effort was advice given to the police department about a gay sex ring /meth in development.

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

John found the connection too real and dangerous.

“After about a month here I was just, I guess, having a bad day and 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 watches now, certainly embarrassed to admit he could fall this far, but still determined to tell the story as he lived it. “Most often in these cases, I got scammed. With bad drugs.

“Then I got to know everyone better at [work] and, then, just started asking around. Every evening after work we got together, sometimes it turned into all night entertainment. We drove all night looking for it. By his count, all but two of his co-workers regularly used the drug.

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

John details the growing closeness he has developed with his habit.

“At first I was asking a friend of a friend of a friend, then a friend of a friend, then just a friend, then one day I thought, ‘I could make money. ‘money here.'”

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

“For someone so insecure, and I have no qualms about that,” he says, “it was nice to have people who wanted me, needed to see me, to find me.”

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

And that seems to be limited to homosexuals.

In August, “Chicago Tribune” columnist Steve Chapman expressed his fatigue upon learning that crystal meth had been declared by some (most recently, “Newsweek”) to be “America’s most dangerous drug.”

“The war on drugs is a lot like horror movies,” he wrote. “A new monster is always needed, and the new monster is never much different from the old one.” He adds that the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a unit of the US Department of Health and Human Services, reports:

“That 5.2% of all Americans age 12 and older have tried the drug at least once. But only 0.3% currently use it. This means that the addiction rate is no more than one in 17. The tobacco addiction rate, on the other hand, is more than one in three. For alcohol, it’s about one in 12.”

So in America, the gay community has its own drug problem. By now we all know about the increase, sexual inhibition, improvement in the amount of energy you get from consuming crystal meth. We also know about the severe fallout that occurs after using the drug. The title of a new book, written by Duncan Osborne, called “Suicide Tuesday: Gay Men and the Crystal Meth Scare” makes it pretty clear what so few users, it seems, are thinking “at the moment.”

John Lasiter knows this. The drug dealers he encountered downtown during 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 still like, ‘No!'”

In her boyfriend, Kaine, it looks like John has gotten off drugs.

“There are days when I really want to,” he says, “but Kaine, he never tried, never, and I just wish I could be like him.”

He would like to one day start an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous, he says, “but without the religion. There’s gotta be a way to get people off drugs and yet, at the same time, you know…” His voice trails off as he finds the words.

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

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