The Monster Smash: Breaking down the “meth epidemic” and barriers to stimulant safe supply

Author’s Note: This article does not address the origins of the modern zombie, nor its appropriation from the Haitian religion of Vodou and white-washing by Hollywood. Please take the time to read up on the history of the “working dead,” its genesis in African enslavement, and the liberatory struggle of the Haitian Revolution.

Once an idyllic site for a relaxing riverside stroll, a historic bridge in the city of Red Deer, Alberta has become ground-zero for a problem that’s causing some concerned citizens to carry make-shift arms in self-defence. The situation has become so dire, one woman refuses to venture to work without her trusty umbrella in hand – even on the sunniest of days. She has personally seen skeletal figures slumped in the trusses’ shadows, witnessed the creeping mist of meth, and heard the monstrous moans of lurid fornication from the surrounding bushes. According to many of the respectable and gainfully employed of Red Deer, the community was no longer safe for anybody. The “zombie apocalypse” was well underway, and based on eye-witness testimonies it had taken the form of houseless people who use drugs.

Drug-users and their allies were understandably upset by comments comparing some of society’s most marginalized to reanimated corpses. For those fighting for decriminalization and an end to the stigmatization of illicit drug-use, these monstrous characterizations are a sickening symptom of the white supremacist, ableist and anti-poor ideologies that have always been at the root of what it means to be turned into a member of the living dead. 

Zombifying queer, poor, disabled, Black, and Indigenous people who use drugs allows their subjugation to appear natural, the substances they consume to be blamed as the source of their struggles, and the War On Drugs (or war on an imaginary “undead horde”) to continue unquestioned. However, this panic is not unique to “Just Say No” crowd. The fantasy that substances have the potential to suck out one’s soul and produce material deprivation is an idea that permeates the minds of many social service providers, self-identified harm reductionists and even some illicit drug-users. Addiction as a state of “living-death” is a popular part of anti-drug propaganda today, but this is most notably the case when it comes to crystal methamphetamine.

The Addict-Zombie: A senseless hunger for substances

Grey skin, covered in sores, wandering the streets in an unconscious daze, driven only by a heedless hunger for moooooore – for some stigmatizers it would be difficult to discern whether a zombie or so-called “addict” were being described. People who struggle with an illicit drug dependency (especially those who are houseless, disabled, negatively racialized or unemployed) are stereotyped as being so compromised by substances they no longer feel empathy, concern for their own well-being, and utterly lack any insight or understanding of their condition. Meth is particularly associated with mindlessness due to the myth that the drug causes brain damage

The “addict” and zombie both occupy a paradoxical place of living-death in the public imagination, and despite once being an individual with hopes and dreams, now belong to a dangerous underclass of former people. Unconcerned with mortgage payments and keeping up with the Joneses, the addict/zombie represents an end to life as we know it and threatens to take everyone down with them. For the righteous who dread nothing more than their hard-earned tax-dollars supporting the horde of free-loading feral, it should come as no surprise that people opposed to safe consumption sites in Red Deer saw the gathering of houseless people using drugs and thought they were witnessing a scary primetime television show. While attempts are being made to decouple links between addiction and the undead (through drug-users activists speaking up and insisting their lived experience be recognized) the zombie remains a major symbol of sensational, stigmatizing reporting. Drawing upon horror movie tropes and the “zombie apocalypse” is not original: it’s the latest wave in a long standing media-hysteria, and typical of how the “meth epidemic” has been covered in Canada over the last two years.

Collage of meth panic headlines from across Canada (Allison Barker)

Monstrous Meth: ER outbreaks, swarmed shelters & overrun police departments

Apocalypse stories always start out the same: people going about their lives and daily routines, ignorant of the pending end of all previously scheduled activities. The early signs are easy to brushoff (a speeding police vehicles or unusual car crash causing a traffic jam) but before long first-responders find themselves overwhelmed. Police struggle with suspects unreceptive to being arrested. Doctors and nurses are puzzled by incurable cases of confusion, irritability and anxiety, which only escalate when the patient is told they need to leave (and sorry but nobody cares you have nowhere to go and no we won’t be offering a tranquilizer to help you relax and sleep). As the problem spreads, so does public awareness as headlines warn of a zombie apocalypse brought on by an epidemic of meth

What first appeared to Emergency Room staff as a patient in need is now a clear case of “crank” – a drug so powerful it transforms the kindest of souls into a hollowed-out Jib-Tech Warrior. From Vancouver to Moncton, no one is spared. A transition house in Winnipeg has a mattress burned by one of these sleepless varmints (who is hellbent on making sure nobody gets any rest) and even an under-capacity homeless shelter in Kenora is forced to close due to meth-users menacing staff by leaving their belongings lying around in inconvenient places. Across the country reporters sound the amphetamine-alarm and speak of strained services providers unprepared for the unpredictable and deeply disruptive swarm of stimulant users overrunning the very institutions meant to manage crisis. 

However, unlike the stories of cinema, we’re informed there is still time to contain this absolute epidemic before it comes for us all. Plans are underway as police propose bigger budgets for more boots on the ground, and Crime Stoppers doubles their reward for any tip that leads to a meth-related arrest. Emergency rooms consider installing jail cells and metal-detectors (lest a syringe be brought into a hospital) and frontline staff undergo rigorous safety training on how to defend themselves against a sudden undead-attack. 

According to sensational coverage the drug is spreading, causing people to change, and ushering forth unprecedented violence that must be contained through drug-busts and detox. These aren’t boozers, opioid-users or coke-heads we’re talking about. Make no mistake: meth is a matter of monstrous criminality and madness. While the use of some illegal substances are increasingly understood as issues of public health, the scary zombies of speed remain immune to redemption.

#WeAreAllZombies? Hard differences between fast & slow zombie-addicts

Ignoring the existence of polysubstance use (or the fact many people with “hard” drug habits can pass as “sober”), highly criminalized substances such as heroin and meth have different effects on the body and are imagined as producing qualitatively distinct kinds of zombie-addicts. People who are dependent on down are stereotyped as the classic “slow” zombie of cinema; they lumber about, and would be threatening if they weren’t easy to push over (or liable to slump over themselves while in a nod). The exhilarating, energy-giving powers of meth, however, produces a frightening fast zombie – an unbound-beast that can’t be outrun, will break into your home and do all your dishes. Whereas the opioid user is increasingly depicted as someone sentenced to death by a deadly fentanyl dealer (a misnomer that fails to name prohibition as the source of harm), meth-heads are more readily represented as murderers and killers. This should cause concern as meth-related overdose deaths are increasing (especially amongst those who are polysubstance users) and encourage us to contemplate the limits of certain anti-prohibition rallying cries.

More people are organizing against decades of harmful drug policies as the overdose crisis and loss of life continues unabated. Some methods include raising awareness through hashtags like #NicePeopleUseDrugs and #WeAreAllDrugUsers, the latter of which seeks to expose the hypocrisy of drug hierarchies and unite everyone from coffee-fiends to crack-heads against the common enemy of prohibition. (Sorry, Christian Scientist & Born-Again recovery fanatics, you’ll have to sit this one out.) Anti-stigma slogans are useful for starting discussions about why some substances can be legally bought at a store while others are discreetly traded outdoors, but these big tent campaigns can also erase important differences between “hard” drug-users, and how we might explicitly need a #MethUsersAreNicePeopleToo hashtag. Not even all meth users are treated the same. There are important social factors that can shield against or amplify meth-stigma.

Not A United Front: Distinguished drug-users & sane substance use

Although the way people take drugs is complex and can change over time, it’s possible for two people to use methamphetamine but for only one of them to be seen by their fellow-users as corrupted by their consumption. The party-goer who holds down a well-paying job and exclusively snorts “tina” over the long-weekend is generally held in higher regard than (and may even scoff at) the tweaker who slams “dirty jib” every day and only goes on drug-vacation when they’re involuntarily withdrawing in a prison cell. All meth use is seen as walking on thin ice, but people who inject are strongly associated with illness and death. “Flailers” often receive horrified stares from the uninitiated, as well as cynical side-glances from more composed cyde-users. Having a mental-health crisis in public can be dangerous for anyone (if the cops are called) but those whose outbursts can be attributed to “meth psychosis” find themselves turned away from psych-wards and detox-centers. 

Despite sharing a molecular structure and drug scheduling status, who the drug user is and how they partake in a drug will affect whether or not others will see their use as a sign of zombiehood, a loss of control and social status. Drug-use does exist on a spectrum, but the line between safe and dangerous, “problematic” and recreational-use is still shaped by white bourgeois ideals of self-possession and sanism; that is, the ability to live within narrow boundaries of “appropriate” behaviour, and to not be seen as “crazy.” It’s nice to imagine solidarity is a given amongst people who use the same substance, but within illicit drug-user communities there are many divisions and higher-than-thou attitudes that are frequently informed by capitalist standards. This is no less the case in the world of pharmaceutical amphetamines, where doctors judge the behaviour and social presentation of patients to decide who is “deserving” of prescription speed access.

Medical (Meth)Amphetamines & Informal “Stimulant Substitution” Programs

Unavailable in Canada and not widely prescribed in the United States, Desoxyn is the brand name of methamphetamine in a pill. Other members of the amphetamine family (including dextroamphetamine) have very similar effects, and are more commonly used to treat everything from narcolepsy to fidgety preschoolers that won’t settle-down during story time. Advocates point to the popularity of Adderall with post-secondary students (desperate to keep-up or maintain a competitive edge) to trouble the assumption that amphetamines are so powerful they cause people to rob their dear mothers, pick at the bugs under their skin, and lose all their teeth. 

Unfortunately, the pharmacological fact that speed is widely prescribed treat disabilities such as ADD/ADHD has been unconvincing to doctors who continue to withhold a safe-supply of stimulants, especially for people who use drugs that are marked as dangerous or disordered. Meth-users who deal with multiple forms of oppression are often seen as too “abnormal” or “far gone” for rehabilitation and disregarded by a medical system preoccupied with eliminating deviance and returning bodies to a “normal” state.

Whether or not meth-use is mentioned, when you’re Black, Indigenous, gender non-conforming, living in poverty, disabled or unemployed, it’s extremely rare that a doctor will consider a request for stimulant drugs because your life is fundamentally understood as unruly and criminal. On the odd occassion that someone is open about their use of meth, medical practioners are more likely to see someone who is straight, white, middle-class, cis, male, educated and working as a misguided self-medicator who truly deserves the resources. (It’s not “enabling” if they’re not really one of those irresponsible undead miscreants.) However, the decision to disclose illicit meth use might not be an option for those who are already heavily scrutinized, surveilled and used to being seen as suspect.

Escaping Detection: Privilege as protection against a “disordered” diagnosis

Adolescents in government care can’t experiment without being “at-risk” of draconian interventions and forced drug treatment, which can be profoundly disempowering and traumatizing. For a Youth-In-Care who has a team of workers watching and writing notes, it isn’t possible to go through a phase of heavy drug-use without it finding its way into a file that will follow them forever. These differences make it more likely someone will be identified by a doctor as “drug-seeking” (as if seeking out substances is a bad thing) or in danger of engaging in “diversion” (because heaven forbid someone other than wealthy shareholders and CEOs profit from pharmaceuticals, or high-quality drugs become more available in a toxic illicit market). It can also mean being labeled as having a “substance use disorder,” which can even override a previous diagnosis of ADD/ADHD and make it impossible to access prescription stimulants.

Meth-users unable to evade detection, who don’t have the luxury of choosing to disclose their drug use, have fewer options than those who can navigate the system to their advantage. Those unable to access a stimulant substitute are stuck choosing between antidepressant SSRIs, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy worksheets, abstinence, or continuing to use crystal, which compared to its pharmaceutical counterparts is lower-quality, criminalized and in danger of adulteration that can result in sickness, overdose and death. Disclosure can be dangerous for anyone and privilege doesn’t promise a patient a prescription of their choice. However, when someone’s humanity is already affirmed by the status quo, it’s less likely a doctor will hear a middle-class white man’s desires as the grotesque groans of a dangerous fiend. 

Zombie Methaphors: Reanimating resistance & demands from the undead

Making a monster out of crystal-meth causes social disparities and material deprivation to be attributed to a drug that is available as a pharmaceutical and prescribed to those who aren’t seen as a dangerous, out-of-control zombie/addict. The myth that society is in the midst of a “meth epidemic” (as opposed to crisis of shrinking social safety-nets and growing inequalities propelled by settler-colonialism, capitalism and environmental collapse) allows for hardships to be scapegoated on a substance that is a de facto source of pleasure and a means of surviving inhumane conditions. 

When meth is believed to summon forth supernatural violence, police brutality and funding for “tough on crime” enforcement strategies can be justified in the name of “safety” and quelling the apocalypse. Psych-wards and detox services can refuse to help someone who is high and in extreme emotional distress, because responsibility for “meth psychosis” remains the soul-domain of those who did not heed the “not even once” warning and went a week without sleep (even if their reason for staying-up was having nowhere safe to come-down). Zombifying meth-users keeps many from critically thinking about the countless individuals popping a very similar pharmaceutical substance everyday, or why some lives are marked as “disordered,” refused support and further punished by prohibitive drug policies.

Stigmatization is a maddening spiral, but when side-effects include “delusions of persecution” the hostility and discrimination a meth-user meets can be readily blamed on their rotten-brain. It’s no wonder “the drug” makes people so agitated and angry. Everyone seems to agree that zombie-addicts are not born, but how they are made depends upon who is being listened to. 

The media hellscape is a mass of non-users (and the rare but always respectably reformed-monster) who speak of a demonic-drug devoid of messy structural inequalities. Missing are members of the “undead horde,” people with active addictions who are also maligned by white supremacy, classism, ableism and cis-heteropatriarchy – just to name a few of the oppressive forms of power that muzzle many meth-users.

People who use/d meth are demanding decriminalization, stable housing, the elimination of poverty, a safe-supply of stimulants, and for our duress not to be dismissed, but our voices go unheard amidst all the fear-mongering and (tone) policing. The marginalization of meth-users is missing from public discussion, because nobody thinks to pass a zombie the microphone, or wants to accept that affluence – not amphetamines – is causing the “apocalypse.”

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