California is the primary gateway for smuggling methamphetamine into the United States, with an estimated 70% of the U.S. supply coming across the border with Mexico according to a 2014 report by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.
But where are the retail marketplaces for the drug, considered the most destructive form of addiction among gay men? In this world where many gay men first meet their partners (sexual and/or romantic) virtually rather than face-to-face, it is online. In West Hollywood you don’t need to leave your apartment to cruise down “Vaseline Alley” or into the dimly lit bathroom of a gay bar to buy the drug. You can go on Grindr, a mobile hookup app headquartered on the 14th floor of the Pacific Design Center’s Red Building in West Hollywood.
That mobile phone app, used by gay men primarily to find others for sex, claims two million users in 192 countries. It is one of the few popular gay hookup apps where someone looking to buy meth in the early morning hours in West Hollywood (and greater Los Angeles, the United States and the world) can find a dealer. Others have designed their apps to make it impossible to include on public profiles emoji and text that signal drug use or sale, and some, such as Scruff, perhaps Grindr’s biggest competitor, have taken active steps to block words or symbols used in profiles by drug dealers and users.
Grindr, which recently announced a redesign of its app, hasn’t taken any evident steps to do that. Its founder, Joel Simkhai, has not responded to requests from WEHOville for comment about that. Simkhai, who launched Grindr in 2009, lives in Los Angeles and is active in the West Hollywood gay community (he has been a contributor to City Councilmember John Duran’s re-election campaigns). A Chinese company recently purchased a 60% interest in Grindr for $93 million.
In the past year the company, whose name has come to mean “gay hookup app” in the way “Kleenex” is understood to mean “tissue,” has been trying to recast its image. Recent press releases describe Grindr as a social network for gay men, downplaying sex. Grindr’s corporate website (not its mobile app) also has added information about LGBT rights campaigns around the world. And Grindr partnered with the federal Centers for Disease Control, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Gilead, the maker of the drug Truvada, to survey gay men about the use of Truvada as a measure to prevent infection with HIV, which is a common consequence of meth use. Grindr also has launched its own clothing line. Currently Grindr is partnering with the City of West Hollywood and an organization called Hackathon to develop apps to address LGBT issues such as homelessness and transgender visibility.
Despite all that, Grindr remains controversial in some countries and communities because of the way it can be used to find and buy meth.
A young man named Jay Morris, 24, raised a red flag about the problem in Australia when he went public last year about his meth addiction, which caused him to lose his job as a television presenter and sent him into rehab for two years. Morris argued that social media sites should remove profiles of users who are evidently selling illegal drugs. “People don’t realize that it is life and death for people who go through rehab,” Morris said in an interview with OUTinPerth, a gay Australian website. Morris called for Australia, which bars sales of illegal drugs on phones or online, to shut Grindr down.
OUTinPerth did a search of Grindr, reporting “It didn’t take us long to find a stack of Grindr uses offering marijuana, methamphetamines and a variety of pills.
“Profiles with images of smoke, clouds and pills were easy to spot. One user creatively used the character of Monkey Magic, who travelled on a cloud, to advertise their wares. In their bio lines one user promoted that a delivery service was available if you placed an order, while another boasted their product was superior to other suppliers.”
In the UK, a documentary called “Chemsex” that launched in 2015 has provoked discussion online about the growing incidence of gay men using meth to enhance their sexual experience and the way it has destroyed their lives. A recent screening of the documentary at the Arclight in Hollywood was organized by the Impulse Group, an organization of young gay men to promote HIV awareness. The men shown in the documentary injecting and inhaling meth and having sex mentioned “Grindr” multiple times, leading one young man attending the screening to delete the app from his phone as he left the theatre.
In the United States, the subject has gotten relatively little attention. Last year, Danny Pintauro, the former “Who’s the Boss?” star who went public about being HIV positive, called out Grindr in an interview with TMZ.
“The correlation between meth and Grindr… is a lot bigger than anyone realizes,” he told TMZ. “From my experiences in the past, I’d say one of every ten guys on there is either doing crystal, has done crystal, or wants to do crystal.”
In July, New York City police arrested a meth dealer they found on Grindr. In August, the mayor of Fairfax, Va., was arrested by police who, while targeting a local meth dealer ring, found him offering the drug in exchange for sex.
Someone who posted on Queerty, a gay website with a national audience, about Jay Morris suggested that shutting down Grindr and other gay apps through which one can buy illegal drugs is pointless, arguing that drug dealers will find other places to market their wares. Commenters on the post attacked Morris, arguing that he supports government review of private text messages. Grindr, however, makes it possible to post meth solicitations on publicly viewable profiles, something that apps such as Scruff and Manhunt and Growlr don’t allow. That means a user can quickly identify a meth user or dealer on Grindr but must actually open and read profiles on other gay hookup apps to find a drug connection.
The meth sale solicitations are done through explicit screen names. Examples in West Hollywood in recent months are “I GoT FaVs” (G is for GHB or gamma hydroxybutyrate, and the capital T signals “tina,” one of several slang terms for meth, which also is called crystal and, primarily overseas, ice.) Another example is a profile whose primary image declares: “It’s Party Time” with a user name of “Tina & Friends). And there is “Selling blow,” a reference to cocaine, and “connecTiG u.”
Grindr users also can post on their public profiles emoji that signal they are meth users. The drug emoji typically are images of clouds or a puff of smoke (one way users injest meth is through inhaling the smoke while burning it in a pipe; it also is injected, a practice called “slamming”). Another emoji is a party horn spilling out confetti. ParTy is a term use by gay men online that means drug use as is PNP (party-and-play), which references drug use and sex. The “get to the point” and “blowing clouds” phrases also indicate meth use.
Jason Marchant, one of the founders of Scruff, responded to a request from WEHOville about how it monitors and prevents illegal drug sales through its app. One of the ways is screening for emoji that symbolize drugs.
“Crystal meth addiction is one of the most pressing issues facing the gay community. As stewards of a service that connects GBTQ guys with one another–and as gay guys ourselves–we at Scruff take the issue very seriously,” Marchant said in an email message.
“At a policy level, using Scruff to sell drugs is prohibited by our terms of service (scruff.com/tos). The use of imagery or text that conveys or promotes drug use in public profile content is also a violation of our profile guidelines (scruff.com/guidelines)
“We give these policies teeth by employing content moderation, community reporting, and engineering deterrents:
“All updates to public profile photos are reviewed by our content moderation team. Photos depicting drug use or drug paraphernalia are removed. Offending profiles are either warned or suspended, depending on the severity of the violation.
“All reports of offensive profile content and conduct submitted by our community are investigated by our support team. Offending profiles are warned or suspended, depending on the severity of the violation.
“Before saving profile updates, the app checks the profile name and other free text fields. Specifically, it looks for words, emoji, and other patterns that appear on a regularly reviewed list of prohibited items. Many prohibited items are drug-related, and many of the drug-related items are references to crystal meth.
“When a prohibited item is detected by the app, the profile save fails. The member also receives an in-app alert … and an email advising them of the inappropriate content. The profile cannot be saved until the content is removed.
“Given that the intent may have not have been to promote drug use (e.g. “I am NOT into PnP”), it is important to note that no punitive actions are taken against a profile for attempting to include a prohibited item.”
Grindr does screen to prevent users from posting sexually explicit photos in their public profiles, which is forbidden by Apple, whose online store is the biggest marketplace for apps such as Grindr and Scruff.
WEHOville did a survey like that of OutinPerth of Grindr users in and around West Hollywood (unlike some other gay hookup apps, Grindr limits its users to searches in their surrounding area). The Grindr app, especially in the early hours of the morning, has a number of users openly proclaiming their use of meth and, in some cases, that they are selling it. On the typical night, at least three of 100 online app users in the area were offering or suggesting they were selling meth. Others suggested they wanted to “party,” a term meaning to have sex while using drugs but not necessarily selling them.
“I GoT FaVs” is the name of one WeHo Grindr seller profile, which uses a capital T. That is a well-known symbol for Tina, one of several slang synonyms or symbols for methamphetamine.
“T?” was the question posted to I GoT FaVs on Grindr early one night by WEHOville.
“Yes. What can I get for you?” I GoT FaVs responded.
“How much?” WEHOville asked.
“75 for teener which I got 2 grams,” said I GoT FaVs.
“Cool. Gotta go to ATM,” WEHOville texted.
“Okay. I also take PayPal, credit or debit or checks,” texted I GoT FaVs. “What’s your address so I can plan delivery.”
At 2:11 a.m. one day, WEHOville approached connecTinG u (whose T stands for Tina, aka meth, and G for GHB, another risky and illegal drug).
“Sell?” asked WEHOville.
“Yep,” replied connecTinG u.
“How much for T? You deliver? ??” WEHOville texted.
“1/16=90. 1/8=160,” connecTinG u replied, using terms for ounces and dollars.
“Cool. I got $100 in cash. Can you bring it by here now?” WEHOville asked.
“Sure. Address?” texted connecTinG u.
While meth addiction doesn’t get much public attention in West Hollywood, it remains a major issue in the gay community. Mike Rizzo, manager of addiction recovery services and meth addiction recovery services at the L.A. LGBT Center says data shows meth use is on the decline overall in L.A. County, but on the rise in Public Health Department service planning area 4, which includes West Hollywood, Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake and downtown Los Angeles (areas where gay men cluster), and area 7, which is a largely Latino area including cities and neighborhoods such as Bell, Cerritos, City of Commerce, Downey, East Los Angeles and Hawaiian Gardens,.
“Meth continues to be a problem, a significant problem, in the gay community,” Rizzo said. “The challenging part for people that are working in those communities is the county says ‘Oh meth use is decreasing,’ and the focus goes off it. They go on to other things.”
Rizzo said the top addiction issues the Center’s Addiction Recovery Services unit deals with are methamphetamine, alcohol, nicotine and marijuana.