The arrest of white, gay, Democratic donor and LGBT rights advocate Ed Buck on charges of running a "drug den" has brought increased scrutiny to not only methamphetamine use among gay and bisexual men of color in Los Angeles, but also how they're obtaining the drug. Three black men overdosed, two fatally, from using crystal meth in Buck's West Hollywood apartment in the past two years.
Two days after the LA district attorney brought the drug house charges against Buck, federal prosecutors unsealed a 22-page federal criminal complaint with gruesome accounts by 10 other men alleging the 65-year-old Buck plied them with meth and sometimes injected them against their will. The feds also charged Buck with distributing methamphetamine resulting in the death of 26-year-old Gemmel Moore in July 2017.
Last week, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey accused Buck of targeting black gay men struggling with drug addiction and homelessness and shooting them up in what prosecutors call a "violent, dangerous" sexual fetish. But it took a while for the DA to bring charges against Buck, even after the overdose deaths of Moore and of Timothy Dean, whose body was found in Buck's apartment in January. Those deaths were initially ruled accidents by LA County sheriff's deputies. This enraged and engaged members of LA's black and LGBT communities, who said that power and race dynamics caused authorities to drag their feet on bringing Buck to justice.
Health advocates say the difference between crystal meth use among young gay and bisexual men of color and party drugs like cocaine or MDMA is the dynamic of older, white, gay men introducing meth in the context of procuring sex. Buck was accused of preying on not only gay men of color, but of hiring young, homeless, and marginally housed sex workers and paying them to use crystal meth.
To Richard Zaldivar, founder of The Wall Las Memorias Project, a Los Angeles–based health and wellness nonprofit serving Latinx and LGBTQ populations, the accusations about Buck are grisly -- but not surprising.
"From what I've heard, there are many more Ed Bucks out there," Zaldivar told TheBody. "Gay and bi men of color have been ripe for being used as playing toys, and people of color, when trying to be accepted, put themselves in risky places."
The Nexus of Power, Race, and Homophobia
The Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), along with the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM) and the Counter Narrative Project, last year published a blueprint for community groups to reach out to black and Latinx men who use meth. Based on accounts of young men of color in the report, the allegations against Ed Buck are not unique, according to Charles Hawthorne, capacity building coordinator at HRC. "The common thread in our report is a dynamic where wealthy, white men will seek out young men of color," he said. "It's about power, so the [victims] won't feel able to speak out, and their experience can be invalidated."
Statistics on how black and brown men have been supplied with meth by older, wealthier, white men are impossible to come by, but several different anecdotal reports have detailed this as one dynamic explaining the spiking rates of use among young gay men of color. To be sure, not every gay or bisexual man of color was introduced to the substance by white men. But social service organizations in Los Angeles say that meth abuse is on the rise. Data released from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in March 2019 showed the number of meth-related overdose deaths in the county increased more than 700% between 2008 and 2017. And it showed that black and Latinx people were disproportionately affected by meth addiction.
Cathy Reback, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the Friends Research Institute, which focuses on outreach and treatment of meth addiction in LA's LGBTQ community, said one risk factor for addiction is simply living on the West Coast. "There is far more meth use on the West Coast than other parts of the country, due to the availability and market supply." Another risk factor, she said, is housing insecurity. "Meth users who are sex workers, that I have researched, were housing insecure and supporting themselves with sex work, and that was making them especially vulnerable."
A study published in the scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence explored the nexus of homophobia, race, and homelessness among men of color who have sex with men and found a perfect storm of forces that could lead to meth abuse. Researchers found people with incidents of homophobic victimization and violence had greater risk of housing instability, and those with housing instability had a greater propensity for meth use. The study's authors concluded that homophobic victimization and unstable housing should be addressed alongside treatment and prevention of methamphetamine use in men of color who have sex with men.
Meth Is a Risk Factor for HIV
Another problem with meth use, in addition to its multi-pronged attack on the body, is its correlation with HIV infection.
Reback, who has studied meth addiction and HIV for 25 years, said that when her team does outreach to gay-identified men and men who have sex with men on the streets and in sex clubs, they have found 23% were living with HIV. But that rate goes up with meth use, she said. "Of ongoing users, that is those who used at least once a month, we found 42% infected. In outpatients at our site, the rate of HIV infection among meth users has been as high as 61%."
The good news, according to Reback, is that treatment does work. "Though you always have to meet the user where they are, and not insist on treatment when they're not ready for it."
The bad news for meth users who are HIV positive is the damage the stimulant does to their body. A 2018 study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that methamphetamine use could accelerate HIV progression, even for those who use antiretrovirals and are undetectable.
The apparent growth of meth abuse in Los Angeles is a larger problem than wellness and social-service organizations can handle. In 2008, LA County, recognizing the extent of the crisis, committed $1.6 million to community groups for prevention and treatment. Zaldivar, along with other community leaders, took two years to get 10,000 signatures for the county to recognize the crisis and commit the money. "It looks like we're going to have to relaunch that campaign," Zaldivar said.
Zaldivar's organization was also instrumental in defeating a state bill that would delay the closing time for bars to 4 a.m. Extended alcohol-serving hours, in addition to contributing to more car crashes, could increase the use of meth and other drugs. "We see that alcohol is an entry drug to greater partying tools," he said.
"Many More Ed Bucks"
Buck was arrested at his West Hollywood apartment on Sept. 17, days after a man ran from Buck's home fearing he was suffering a meth overdose, prosecutors say. Buck tried to prevent him from getting medical attention, authorities said.
In a press conference announcing federal charges against Buck last week, U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna called him a "serious threat to public safety." For black and LGBTQ activists who have long accused Buck of preying on gay men of color, that statement brought a mixture of vindication and trepidation. Vindication, because these advocates, led by Jasmyne Cannick and Black Lives Matter, have been demanding Buck's arrest for two years. And trepidation, because, in light of new reports of more young men claiming Buck not only introduced them to methamphetamine but injected them with it, they believe there could be other risks to public safety who fit Buck's profile.
Buck will be expected to make a plea at a hearing on Oct. 3. If convicted on federal charges, he could face 20 years in prison. He is also facing a civil suit launched by the family of Gemmel Moore.