Friday, December 30, 2011

SF AIDS Exec: Pipe Ban
Needed to End Meth Abuse

This column of mine appeared last week as part of the Edge Network's Let's Talk HIV blogging project. At a time when a local politician has roiled the local community with a rush to increase nanny-ish legislation of highly dubious merit, the last thing we need is an AIDS executive director pushing for a glass pipe prohibition.


A tragic death took place on San Francisco’s Castro Street on December 8, in broad daylight. Pedro Villamore was found dead in a doorway on the busy street, and facts about his death and life before he became homeless have poured forth from friends and family members.

What we know is that Villamore was 44, a person living with AIDS, lacked housing and used speed. A former partner, David Kilgore, stayed on friendly terms with him after they separated, but soon after they broke up Villamore began a downward spiral according to the Bay Area Reporter. The paper also reported:

Villamore spent a year living in a Marin park, Kilgore said. After he returned, Kilgore and another friend convinced Villamore to go to a treatment center so that he could get housing, even though Villamore wouldn’t acknowledge his drug use, Kilgore said.

He said that eventually Villamore’s T-cells dropped to 20 or 30, and he started getting $1,300 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance. Kilgore bought a condo in the South of Market neighborhood for Villamore and was his landlord for two years. He appeared to quit drugs, but started again after a year, Kilgore said.

Before we go any further, I wish to disclose that I used meth three times in the late 1970s and it was three times too many. Meth gave me incredible energy and a hunger for sex, and I comprehended its allure, but the crash when coming down from meth brought on suicidal thoughts.

The depth of the mental anguish as the meth high wore off cured me of any thought to do it again. Having used meth thrice, I have a very small window into the motives and mindset of my gay brothers who have been or are caught now in meth’s grip, but lack enough knowledge to suggest ways of helping gay men get off meth.

But there is one thing of which I am certain and that is stopping the sale of glass pipes isn’t going to do a damn thing to address the meth destruction in our community.

The executive director of the AIDS Housing Alliance, Brian Basinger, made this comment in response to the BAR’s latest story on Villamore’s death:

Every time I walk by those businesses in the Castro that sell drug pushing paraphernalia, I’m reminded of what those people are doing to our community. Supervisor Scott Wiener should push legislation banning the sale of crack pipes.

What meth users need are counseling services, stays in rehab facilities, affordable healthcare, their own personal commitment to helping themselves stay clean, and decent-paying jobs.

Can we talk misguided and harmful public policy ideas regarding drug use among gays, please?

Before considering Basinger’s pipe prohibition proposal, take into account that amyl nitrates are banned by federal law and you’ll find plenty of shops peddling that product on Castro Street. Oh, and meth is also banned from being sold openly -- and a lot of good that does.

I just don’t see how a pipe prohibition would in any way have kept Villamore off drugs, clean and sober, on his AIDS cocktail, and taking care of himself. There were a multiplicity of factors that pushed Villamore into his years of self-destructive behavior and he apparently made no effort to avail himself of services to address his many needs.

For all we know, Villamore could have injected meth or other drugs into his veins, using a syringe provided by a needle exchange program or purchased over the counter at the nearby Walgreen’s drug store. Should we then use this face to champion ending access to clean needles for all? I say no.

Alcohol prohibition didn’t work, closing the San Francisco baths didn’t stop HIV transmissions, and outlawing marijuana from being grown, distributed, and smoked doesn’t keep people from enjoying their weed.

What meth users need are counseling services, stays in rehab facilities, affordable healthcare, their own personal commitment to helping themselves stay clean, and decent-paying jobs. They must also hear safe sex messages and develop practices that keep them either HIV negative or, if positive, from transmitting the virus or other diseases.

Maintaining existing services and outreach agencies for those among us on hard drugs or alcohol or maintaining sobriety is a constant battle and as with so many health-related organizations, there are more funding cuts expected from governmental and private donors. Adding to the agencies’ burden is that with so many folks out of work or losing their homes or insurance, there’s a growing pool of at-risk individuals tempted by meth or getting hooked on it, increasing demand for ever-shrinking services.

It’s going to take our collective will power and creativity to confront the harmful destruction and deaths meth causes. Reaching community consensus about effective control and decrease of speed use requires long-term thinking and solutions.

Drug paraphernalia prohibition suggestions are not helpful to the discussion we as a community are having in the wake of Villamore’s demise.

The cause of death has not been released by the city’s medical examiner.

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