This is Part 1 of a BuzzFeed News series.
It was 8 p.m. and a mile from his home when Jacen Zhu realized that if he were going to survive, he would have to run. The men pursuing him, one on foot, two in a car, had begun narrowing the gap. He knew what was coming.
They had already kept him in the older, wealthy, white man’s house for 12 hours. The homeowner was the ringleader, directing everything that would unfold: enlisting two black men as bait to lure Zhu — an even younger black man — to his house, injecting him with crystal methamphetamine until he began to mentally detach; then holding a pillow over his face while penetrating him.
Finally, he managed to break loose. But as Zhu reached the front door, one of the men caught up, in time to make a suggestion: “Why don’t you take the exit through the garage?”
At this, Zhu knew it would be the last room he would see.
Then he was running — 23 years old, on a darkened street, gasping, panicking, wondering how this had happened. All he had wanted was some fun, a connection, perhaps good sex, anything to forget his troubles — but instead he was running for his life, and they were catching up. Those men, possessed by meth, smelling blood.
There was one option left. He began banging on people’s front doors, calling out for help.
He ran from house to house, hoping his distress would be enough to elicit assistance of some kind — that at least a door would open.
He kept knocking, and running, hoping.
No one answered.
Today, Jacen Zhu sits in his car in San Diego reliving that night in 2013, relieved that he can. The story of how he survived and who kept him quiet unravels later. For now, he talks to BuzzFeed News about the wider issue: how crystal meth is spreading far beyond the party scene of the white gay community and into the lives of black and Latino queer men. And in particular, how white gay men are weaponizing meth against black men.
When drugs such as meth are used to heighten and prolong sex between two or more men, it is known as “PnP” — party and play. In Europe and elsewhere, this is also referred to as “chemsex.” Both can also involve drugs such as GHB, the illegal anesthetic that reduces inhibitions and intensifies sexual arousal. Even in tiny doses, it can cause unconsciousness and death. But, according to Zhu and others with firsthand experience, in these situations it is the acutely stimulating effects of meth that can unleash extreme racism and violence.
Zhu talks of the trauma he experienced from that incident. “Some of it I haven’t processed,” he says before offering a glimpse into what else is there. “I think that allows me not to process other things.”
That night was just one of many. Zhu knows that he was lucky — he escaped — but that many do not. His testimony, combined with those of a dozen queer people of color who spoke to BuzzFeed News, forms a distress signal. It reveals how innumerable black and Latino men are being subjected to unimaginable cruelty by white men on meth, but their experiences and distress are never heard.
News coverage has offered just a flash of this horror, but only over the last two years — because it related to a powerful white man.
In July 2017 and January 2019 — just 18 months apart — two black men were found dead from meth overdoses in the West Hollywood home of major Democratic donor Ed Buck.
But despite Gemmel Moore, 26, and Timothy Dean, 55, dying in the same circumstances, in the same house, from the same drug, the police did not arrest or charge Buck, the man many believe to be responsible, for over two years. His connections to powerful figures in Los Angeles as well his reported half a million dollars in donations to the Democrats fueled the worst suspicions: that his influence and whiteness were protecting him.
A groundswell of local activism sparked street protests, social media campaigns, and interviews on news channels — all predominantly by black LGBTQ advocates — chanting as one: Arrest Ed Buck. Moore’s mother published the contents of her son’s journal, which included claims that Buck had forced him to inject meth multiple times. In one entry he’d written that “If it didn’t hurt so bad I’d kill myself but I’ll let Ed Buck do it for now.” Still, no arrest was made.
It took a black man fleeing from Buck’s house in September 2019 — and phoning 911 — for the political donor to be arrested. He was later indicted on charges of running a drug house, battery causing serious injury, administering meth, three counts of distributing meth, and two counts of distributing meth causing death. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The allegations of several other men, contained in the court documents, suggest a pattern of conduct. Buck, it is alleged, invited black men — some were sex workers or homeless — to his apartment, before giving them meth and other drugs, sometimes forcibly injecting them while they were unconscious. Other times, according to the court documents, he filmed them and encouraged them to perform for him sexually by dressing up in underwear and parading around. One man said he awoke in pain, bleeding from his anus. Another said Buck approached him wielding a power saw. When approached for comment by BuzzFeed News, Buck’s lawyer did not respond.
Judge Christina Snyder denied Buck bail and set the trial for August this year.
But this story of meth, race, and power runs deeper than the allegations against one high-profile donor. In interviews with BuzzFeed News for a three-part series that begins today, black and Latino queer men in LA and across Southern California detail their experiences with meth and the explosion of abuse, violence, and sexual exploitation it has unleashed. They reveal what happens in those drug-filled rooms when men of color meet white men for sex.
Two knew the men who died in Buck’s house, as well as the man who called 911. A dozen others with either personal or professional insight — those trying to help victims — share what they have witnessed. All agree: There are countless white men who use meth to abuse people of color.
“I wish that Ed Buck was a lone wolf,” says Jacen Zhu, in a tone that mirrors several who mention the former entrepreneur: part scoff as if it is the most obvious question of all, and part sunken resignation. “But he is one of many.”
DeMarco Majors, a 42-year-old former pro basketball player and model, almost yelps when asked if he agrees with Zhu. “Oh my god, yes,” he says. “Hell yeah, without a doubt.” He now runs a gym and is in recovery from meth use over a 10-year period. Meth, he says, “creates monsters.”
And Thomas Davis, a 27-year-old dancer in Hollywood who has lived all over Los Angeles, echoes this. “There are other Ed Bucks that just aren’t getting caught. … He’s just a small part of what really needs to be taken care of. The problem isn’t Ed Buck; he’s a symptom of the problem.”
For years, Davis exchanged sex for meth and a place to stay. There is no doubt for him that there will be other Gemmel Moores, too. “This is still happening. People are still going to die; someone else that OD’d because they were taken advantage of, and what are y’all going to do then? It’s not done,” he says.
The accounts of these men, alongside all those who speak to BuzzFeed News, expose the Ed Buck allegations as just the smoke signal. Beneath rages unseen abuse and new forms of sexual exploitation.
They speak of torture, gang rape, guns to the head, intentional overdose by injection, enforced meth inhalation, and systematic, even targeted abuse of individuals over many months — sometimes years.
And they speak of the racism, ignited by meth and exploding into realms rarely discussed: plantation slavery role-play; sexual slavery with meth acting as chain, whip, and reward; and sexualized, scattergun use of the n-word — all amid a culture drenched in the fetishization of black men.
They describe black bodies as still being colonized in 21st-century America — owned, beaten, and bought — with one image that manifests in multiple ways, surfacing again and again:
Zhu begins with technique: how the white men he has met administer more meth than is agreed upon. He is talking in the driver’s seat of his car, enunciating expressively through a neatly manicured goatee. His disposition is sunny — initially.
“They say they’re going to ‘do you’ now. You say ‘a small amount,’” he says, referring to the dose of meth being prepared for injection. But this is not what happens. “They try to do it so quickly. Before you know it, [the meth] is already melted down; you just see your syringe full of water primarily and don’t know how much of that dosage they’ve put into this needle.”
Shortly after they inject it, “You’re messed up, tweaking out, paranoid, and they’re pretending that they gave you the amount you asked for — while enjoying getting you this messed up,” he says. “Their end goal is that you’d be messed up enough to where they can do whatever they want to you.”
He has also been pressured into inhaling meth. Once with a white client, he tried to avoid partaking “to pretend like I was smoking. So I would light it up and act like I took a puff.” But this didn’t fool the client. “He was like, ‘No, you didn’t really hit it. Do another one.’”
Zhu has seen meth from several angles: as a teenager exchanging sex to survive, as someone addicted to meth, and today as an adult film performer, escort, and go-go dancer in San Diego.
“The problem isn't Ed Buck. He's a symptom of the problem.”
Before delving into where enforced meth and deliberate overdosing leads, Zhu makes a wider point about its use.
“Meth is rampant here,” he says, referring to its use among gay, bi, and trans people in California. “The East Coast has no idea — on the West Coast it’s completely out of control.” Zhu has experienced both, having moved here three years ago from Baltimore, where he had set up “Take Down Tina,” an initiative to increase awareness of meth among queer people of color. “It's growing and growing and growing,” he says.
Davis, the dancer, agrees that the drug is on the rise in California, particularly among young queer black people. He forms cones with each hand to represent a small cluster of such users in isolated parts of town. “At first, I’d find a pocket here, a pocket here,” he says; his hand cones are being placed far apart. “And then people from this pocket would be maybe over here” — the cones are moving closer together and speeding up — “and then pockets started popping up until it's just everywhere.”
Those on the front line trying to help are witnessing this too. “I have seen more African American men come into treatment in the last six months than in the last eight years,” Manuel Rodriguez, CEO of La Fuente Hollywood Treatment Center, a rehab facility for LGBTQ people, tells BuzzFeed News. “When I see three men of color come into treatment at the same time and they’re all shooting meth or inhaling? [I think] ‘I’ve never seen this here before.’”
According to the CDC, from 2008 to 2017 — the nine years leading up to Gemmel Moore’s death — the number of fatalities from meth in Los Angeles County rose by 707%, approximately one every day. It currently forms nearly 40% of all drug deaths in the area. Nationally, between 2015 and 2018, the number of fatalities from the drug doubled to 13,000, according to the CDC. And meth use among black sex workers has rocketed too; more than half (57.9%) of black and Latino male sex workers in LA reported that they have exchanged sex for meth, according to a 2018 study by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
The effect of the chemical on the brain is critical to understanding why it grips people so intensely. Meth stimulates an enormous release of dopamine, far greater than those from cocaine or sex. Popularly, this neurotransmitter is seen as being responsible for producing happy feelings — but it is in fact more important in governing what is known as “motivational salience.” This means propelling you toward or away from something. If toward, it draws you in with a great, sometimes unmanageable feeling of desire and reward.
Those who convey their meth experiences to BuzzFeed News describe their first time in superlative terms — the most intense, the most euphoric sexual liberty — and the ensuing relationship to the drug as like an abusive one: It controlled me, destroyed me. “It feels like it’s hunting you down,” says Davis. Meth can also lead to paranoia, psychosis, twitching, impaired movement and speech, long-term cognitive degeneration, tooth loss, weight loss, depression, and anxiety.
Methamphetamine is sold as a powder or rock crystals which can be smoked, snorted, inserted anally (known as “booty bumps”), or injected (called “slamming”). Among gay and bisexual men, meth is known by two main nicknames: Tina, or T for short, and ice. On hookup apps, the crystal emoji is used with an upper case “T” in the middle of words, or alongside the abbreviation PnP to denote an interest in meth with sex.
“He wanted to be white man master, and I was going to be black man slave.”
But it is the resulting meetings when sex and meth fuse together that racism can explode into the enactment of any stereotype or supremacist belief. First with slavery role-play.
“I had a guy who wanted to slave play,” says Kenneth, a 57-year-old choreographer in West Hollywood. “He wanted to be white man master, and I was going to be black man slave, like on the fields.” This was just a prelude. “He was testing me to see how far I would go.”
Kenneth — who asks that his surname is not included — has been in meth addiction recovery for nearly 20 years and as such has witnessed its trajectory into black gay circles. For him and others, this path has been fairly clear: The drug was popular among white gay men from the 1990s onward, but only in the last few years has it proliferated more widely into black and Latino queer communities as white men began introducing it to them.
As Kenneth sits by his bed in his apartment, he contemplates again the role-play request. His body jolts suddenly. “How the fuck do you even ask anybody that?” He answers in just a beat: “When everybody’s high, of course you can ask it. And you may get a yes.”
He whispers: “And I almost did it. I almost did.” He knows he came close “because a few times I let people call me ‘nigger.’” On one occasion, “he was sucking my dick,” says Kenneth, “and he said, ‘Harder, nigger.” This has happened many times. “People have yelled out ‘nigger’ when either I’m fucking them or they’re fucking me.”
He describes how he would react at the time as like being stunned; wrong-footed into silence. “When somebody doesn’t have self-worth…” He stops, suddenly overwhelmed, and waits until he regains composure before explaining how this muzzles you. “Somebody who doesn’t have a voice is not able to say ‘Don’t do that.’”
For Thomas Davis, however, the phenomenon filters out beyond language and role-play. His experiences of PnP parties reveal that some white gay men are not pretending or playing: They are reaching back generations and repeating.
We meet in a Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, right in the heart of white gay Los Angeles, barely a mile from Ed Buck’s apartment. The other patrons are mostly older, many in their fifties and sixties: men in Gap casuals with subtle facial fillers and protruding biceps; men who would have lost so many when they were Davis’s age.
Davis begins to explain what often happens when white men invite black men to their homes for meth and sex. “Slave culture shows up in a lot of really interesting and twisted ways,” he says. “There's the white guy that's calling the shots that has all this stuff and then there's all of us — the black guys, all the newbies that are there for their pleasure.”
Davis is slim and energetic. He wears a plunging V-neck T-shirt and loose jeans. He was raised in Colorado by white adoptive parents. Republicans. He speaks quickly in vast paragraphs of multi-clause sentences, spooling through connections as they occur to him in the moment. His demeanor is urgent: listen.
“If you take the mindset of how a plantation would work, there'd be the overseer guy in command of all of it,” he says. “They would make black guys have sex with each other. If they wanted, they would have sex with them.”
The comparisons between planters and white PnP party hosts are relevant, says Davis, because “it's about what they want because they're giving us what we want [meth].” The unspoken contract is clear to all, he says; to comply sexually, you “just do it.”
“I really could have died. It could have been a simple measurement being off.”
“They are orchestrating it,” he says, “just by having the drugs.” The meth ensures unfettered access to black men’s bodies — to Davis’s body. “If they wanted to feel on my booty or whatever, eat me out or something, [I’d be] letting them do it. If their dick wasn't too ugly, I would suck it. Things like that.”
The gatherings work like this: “If I were to go out to a white guy’s house, and he had a few of us over, you introduce yourself to everybody, you make sure you give attention to the person that has the drugs, and when you get the go-ahead, you can start messing with other people — but always having to make sure that the person that has the drugs is happy.”
Sometimes Davis was lucky to survive. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve just passed out and had people be like, ‘Oh, just keep on going,’ giving me more drugs, endless supplies. I’ve been in very, very vulnerable positions” — in particular, he says, when GHB was given to him. “I really could have died. It could have been a simple measurement being off, having somebody else measure doses for me.”
He describes another technique that featured in allegations about Ed Buck’s actions — the use of “fixers.” In Davis’s case, the fixers were older white men deploying attractive young black guys like him to recruit more.
“I’d be used to lure in other young guys,” he says, explaining that he would use hookup apps to invite “more and more” participants until it became “like a revolving door. It was expected of us, as the younger ones, to bring the party.”
Jacen Zhu knows where this setup — a party run by a white man with an endless amount of meth — can lead: running down a street, knocking on doors for help. He talks again about that night, fleeing from the white man’s house, being pursued. As the car trailed him, the driver would sometimes catch up “to spook me,” he says. “They would drive by, make sure I see them, [and then] just go right on by.”
He feared they would stop and kill him.
Eventually, after banging on door after door, one occupant phoned the police. The cops arrived in time to escort Zhu home, but he never filed an official complaint of the abuse. He was too afraid of retaliation.
“The next day, one of the guys was sitting outside my mom’s house,” he says. “It was a scare tactic.”
“They want to fulfill a fantasy — to be gang-banged by a bunch of black guys.”
Only now, seven years later, is he able to reflect on the race and power dynamics behind that ordeal — to see through the horror. “The white guy was the one who was able to host and provide the supplies,” he says. As for the two black men he’d recruited to entice Zhu over, “They knew what they had to do.” The meth, therefore, becomes not only the bait but also the shackles. And the more meth is supplied, the more it acts as a whip. “They were so far gone that their thinking is completely different,” he says. “The drug has changed them. You become a different person.”
The damage remains. When we speak, it is only 12 days since he last took meth, a relapse in his recovery.
“I have a lot of trust issues,” he says. And because the white man had engineered a situation in which Zhu was also harmed by black men, the trauma response widened. “This was a tall, dark-skinned man with a bald head, [so] every time I saw dark-skinned men, I was frightened. Sometimes even still. When I am in black spaces I kind of…freak out a little bit because of that experience.”
This recruitment of black men to lure others and use them all for your desires, says Zhu, derives from a slavery fetish. “They want to fulfill a fantasy — to be gang-banged by a bunch of black guys. A Mandingo fantasy.”
Several people who speak to BuzzFeed News invoke Mandingo, a 1957 book and 1975 film about plantation slavery. In particular, they reference the main enslaved character, Ganymede, a racist archetype to which they are forever held: the strapping, hypersexual black man who is supposedly dominant but traded like a farmyard animal. This fiction, they say, is resurrected in PnP settings, in which black men are used sexually, controlled by meth, and therefore scarcely different from the book’s depictions of enslaved people and “bed wenches” who are raped.
The purpose of such sexual violence in the plantation fields was principally to destroy their spirit, says Micheal Rice, a filmmaker whose award-winning documentary ParTy Boi explores meth’s impact on black gay men at the time of Gemmel Moore’s death. What is now happening at PnP parties is comparable to what was called “breaking the buck” in pre-abolition times.
“It was a process where the white slave master would humiliate the black slave man by anally raping him in front of the other slaves,” says Rice, “to break his manhood and make other slaves not respect him.” (The phenomenon of sexual exploitation of enslaved men is explored by Thomas Foster in his book Rethinking Rufus.) In the documentary we meet David, a black gay man with a meth addiction, who describes the white gay men who use meth to control black men as “puppet masters.” David’s fingers spread — illustrating the strings fanned out — and tug, making the puppets jump.
For Rice and others, the dynamic is always one of power difference, never that of two equals. His film was made two years before court documents purported to show texts between Buck and Moore prior to their last meeting. Moore sent a photo with the words “Gemmel your master slave,” to which Buck replied, “Or slave master.”
Poverty, however, is the great sexual slavery enabler for those who want PnP sex with black male sex workers, according to those who speak to BuzzFeed News. Because to not have money removes all choice.
“A lot of the sex workers don’t have the means to say no,” says Zhu. Then, once they agree to taking meth, “You’re more into doing [sexual] things that you probably wouldn’t when you’re sober. Now you’re fucked up. You’re going to want more. You’re going to stay for a longer session — longer than your [agreed] hour. You’re there for a few hours, and the [white client] felt they’ve gotten their money’s worth.” For most of that time, therefore, the sex worker is working for free and being controlled: what some would call modern-day slavery.
“We're talking about predatory behavior from gay white men who have the money and power to hire these black gay men to perform things that they probably don't want to do,” says Zhu. “But in order to get paid, they have to do it.”
He worries about the damage this is doing to new, young escorts. “Those guys are going from 0 to 100 really fast,” he says. Overall, he says, about 40% of his clients don’t respect boundaries.
Andrew Sims knows this well. He has been an escort for six years, with meth swirling in and out of his life before and since. We sit at a bus stop by a junction on Beverly Boulevard as cars stop at the lights and radios intermittently blare as he talks.
He dresses in closely fitted, black yoga gear. A scar on his left cheek traces the line of his cheekbone; freckles dot his right. He is a psychology major and hopes to become a yoga teacher.
“Time is the number one way you fuck with a sex worker’s boundaries,” he says. Because meth is the perfect tool for securing more time with no extra charge, clients push and push. If he says no, the client still pushes, grinding down resistance. “It’s draining, and that’s the whole point: It’s harder to say no the second, third, fourth time.”
Some clients try to bribe sex workers to take meth, he says. “They will offer financial incentive: ‘I’ll give you $100 if you do it with me.’” But it is fool’s gold; once accepted, the fee effectively plummets because the session inevitably elongates without further hourly rates. “Either that’s part of the deal, or I’m high, or both,” he says. The meth, in other words, both replaces the fee and obliterates boundaries.
The type of sex can change too when meth enters the veins or lungs. More is demanded, particularly when white clients have racially stereotyped fantasies, insisting on rougher sex, S&M, slapping, role-play. Kink that normally attracts a higher rate. “They want all this extra shit. I’m like, ‘you’re not paying me enough for this!’”
Meth in this setting becomes the slide down which anything agreed upfront slips. And black sex workers are already more at the mercy of this. “They tend to have a lower hourly rate,” says Sims. But to say yes can mean losing out too — completely. On one occasion he agreed for an electronic payment from a client in San Bernardino, who wanted meth and sex for five hours. Only afterward did Sims realize what had happened: “It didn’t go through.” (Some Australian courts have deemed the conning of sex workers to be a particular kind of fraud, and considered that reneging on the terms of sexual consent is in fact rape.)
“That’s part of the sexual fantasies — ruining a life.”
Sims has come to fear bookings from West Hollywood because of how many involve white men wanting PnP sex. “I’m like, oh my god, what am I getting into? They get off on pushing your boundaries, all the time,” he says. And the more meth, he adds, the more aggression and racism surfaces — sometimes before they have even met. If they’re texting and Sims has a bad feeling, he tells them he is going to block them. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, fuck you,’ then they’ll say ‘nigger.’”
The racist fantasies go beyond Mandingo-style ones too. One client wanted Sims — the neatly dressed, highly educated yogi — to play a gang-banger, asking if he was a “thug type”. This modern incarnation of the colonial depiction of black-man-as-savage comes complete with what Micheal Rice and others call the “BBC syndrome”: fixation with the notional big black cock.
The danger comes, says Sims, because of the extent to which all of this reduces human beings to animal or object: a commodity. In this, he says, “I’m just the BBC; I’m not a person.”
This dynamic was always there, he adds, but now it has a power supply driving it into darker places. “[Meth] is very much the devil’s drug in so many ways,” he says. “I don’t mean devil in the biblical sense but in this egotistical ‘I’ll do whatever it takes for my own self-serving [ends].’”
He believes that these dynamics were at play with Ed Buck. “Internally, it’s like, ‘black people are bad, wrong, and evil,’ so that’s the mechanism…like, ‘They’re my toys, I can do whatever I want. I am God. Their deaths don’t mean anything to me because they were never people in the first place.’ This slave ship mentality.”
The fantasy of the sexually dominant, powerful black man is only ever allowed to be that: fantasy, an illusion. The white man retains the power.
“They’re only letting you play a small role,” he says.
As we talk, and the more PnP clients Sims remembers — to whom he said no or insisted on a certain fee — the more a pattern occurs to him that dovetails with his personal relationships with white women (he’s bisexual). “As soon as I stand up for myself, it’s breakup time,” he says. He starts banging the heel of his palms together with each word; the light bulb flicking on. To assert himself as a black man means again and again that clients walk away; girlfriends walk away.
For some of those clients, their desire is destruction. “That’s the point,” he says. “That’s part of the sexual fantasies — ruining a life, like, ‘If the life ain’t ruined, then I don’t come as hard.’” At this, he laughs darkly, horrified by how close this comic hyperbole is to what he has witnessed.
But as he continues to talk, etching the details that others later fill in, what emerges is that all they have revealed, so far, is just the start.
“There are people,” he says, “who get off on ruining black lives.” ●