Drug may be culprit behind rising HIV-infection rates
Crystal. Speed. Crank. Tina. Chalk. Tweak. Glass. Ice nearly as many names as the devil and just as manipulative.
Crystal methamphetamine is nothing new to the GLBT community. But experts say it is making inroads in major U.S. cities more rapidly than any other drug.
And Dallas is no exception.
Sgt. Al Sutton, officer in charge of the meth lab unit in the Dallas Police Department Narcotics Division, said local crystal meth use has climbed significantly over the last two years.
He said what was once an almost exclusively Caucasian drug is now spreading into minority populations, just as its grip on the gay community tightens.
“This is, or it soon will be, our next major drug epidemic,” he said.
Users describe a crystal meth high as an altered state of reality a place where energy is abundant, sex is incredible and self-image is next to perfect.
Underneath the veil of deception, addicts face everything from paranoia to stroke and even death. Beyond the physical and mental toll crystal meth is taking on an expanding pool of local users, many medical professionals believe it’s the primary culprit behind a rising HIV infection rate, which has many in the GLBT community very concerned.
Dr. Dhiren Patel, a private practice physician in Oak Lawn who has treated patients at Parkland Hospital, said from his perspective, meth use has climbed faster in Dallas than any other drug in terms of the number of addicts. He estimates speed users currently account for as much as 25 percent of all addicts who come through local emergency rooms, compared with just a handful five years ago.
How rapidly users become addicted varies, but all too often those who begin taking meth as a weight loss aid or energy boost get hooked without even knowing it, Patel said.
Hard numbers on the rate of addiction among gay and non-gay populations are difficult to come by. Yet it’s clear that the drug’s effects have made it an instrument of choice among gay men.
Meth offers an escape from stress and fatigue, providing the user not just with a sustained high but unprecedented energy. The drug costs $25 to $30 for a quarter gram in Dallas, according to information supplied by the Drug Enforcement Agency. That is enough to maintain some users for several days, making it relatively cheap compared with other street drugs, and easily accessible.
Add to that meth’s capacity to alleviate feelings prominent among gays such as depression or overwhelming self-consciousness and finish with its aphrodisiac properties that make users hypersexual, able to engage in marathon sessions of often rough sex, and you have what many call the ultimate gay drug.
“The circuit party scene and the bath house scene have become avenues to introduce meth on a grand scale,” said Randy Martin, director of the Arlington-based Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of the Pride Institute, an addiction recovery organization.
“Being that those two environments are set up for long hours of partying and long hours of sexual activity, meth has become a tool to first enable someone to participate at that level physically; secondly, anything that stands in the way of a person’s participation such as low self-esteem or depression, meth takes care of,” Martin said.
In fact, a 2001 study by the San Francisco Department of Public Health reported that 43 percent of U.S. circuit party attendees took crystal meth.
Within the gay community, meth does not discriminate, Martin said: “Those who have toyed with using meth are sometimes surprised to learn that everyone from their accountant to their attorney is using it.”
A concoction of several easily attainable household substances, meth recipes can vary. Common ingredients include allergy and cold medication, iodine, ammonia, starter fluid and drain cleaner.
The drug comes in many forms, from tablets to smokeable chunks to a soluble powder for injecting. Meanwhile, the physical side-effects are numerous: elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate leading to cardiac distress, blood vessel damage that may lead to stroke, liver damage, overdose-induced hyperthermia and convulsions.
On the psychological front, meth causes paranoia, mood swings and memory loss, just to name a few.
But arguably the biggest crisis the drug presents is its power to reduce or eliminate users’ sexual inhibitions, making them less likely to engage in safe sex and, in turn, more susceptible to HIV and other STD infections.
Eric Shellhorn is a registered nurse in the psychiatric department at UT Southwestern Medical Center who has treated a number of meth patients. Shellhorn said the drug has a direct impact on the executive center of the brain that regulates judgment, which leads many users to participate in unsafe sex.
“It’s a complete “‘throwing caution to the wind’ effect,” he said. “People who would normally practice safe sex simply do not on this drug.”
The numbers are clear. Gay men who use speed are three times more likely to test positive for HIV than non-users due in large part to a greater incidence of unprotected anal sex, according to a study conducted in San Francisco and published in the Sept. 2, 2005 issue of the journal AIDS.
Last year, 624 new HIV infection cases were reported to Dallas County health officials, up 32 percent since 2000.
“There is an undeniable link there,” said Shellhorn.
But meth isn’t just a gay problem. Meth lab busts more than doubled nationwide to 17,170 between 1999 and 2004. In a 2005 survey, 58 percent of U.S. counties reported methamphetamine as their greatest drug problem.
What makes the drug a universal issue is the effect on others in the user’s sphere of influence. The paranoia that many meth users experience not only makes addicts a danger to themselves and those living with them, but to anyone with whom they come in contact.
Highly volatile household meth labs also pose a danger to the surrounding neighborhood should they explode.
In early 2005, Texas lawmakers passed a bill requiring drugstores to keep Pseudoephedrine the active agent in many cold medicines and a key ingredient in meth manufacturing behind the counter. To purchase such medications, customers must now show identification and sign a log book, a measure designed to deter the type of mass buying that many meth makers engage in.
Newspaper reports from across the state indicate that meth lab busts are down in Texas. Sutton said busts are down locally, adding that his counterparts in other cities report the same.
Still, the drug is not any more difficult to find. Some believe the legislation has only opened up the market to a cheaper and more potent product coming from across the Mexican border.
Alison Merkow, program director at the Prevention Resource Center, said the number of meth labs in the Dallas area has gone down since last year, lessening the danger to the overall population. Still, she said, “usage is definitely up and it’s spread over a wide variety of people. This drug doesn’t discriminate.”
Merkow adds that meth deteriorates the body faster than anything else she’s seen.
The faces of meth users can be difficult to look at: sunken eyes, discolored and mangled teeth, brittle hair and fingernails, and skin sores.
But many who use over long periods of time and take on these haggard forms say they don’t see anything wrong with their physical appearance; the drug takes care of that too.
How quickly individuals become addicted to speed varies. Some report getting hooked after only one use while others insist they can take or leave the drug even after months or years of occasional use. Many continue to think it’s possible to control their use.
A September 2005 Advocate poll shows that nearly 20 percent of gay men believe crystal meth can be used responsibly as an occasional recreational drug.
“Meth is the new HIV,” Shellhorn said. “It’s that big a problem because of what it allows people to do under its influence.”
He added that the problem will only worsen without action.
“It’s imperative that the gay community, as it has historically done with other situations, address this issue outright and out loud.”
Note: Next week a look at crystal meth recovery.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, May 12, 2006.