Crystal Meth Use Down in Cities, But ’Meth Heads’ Still Abound
When filmmaker Jane Clark initially sought support to produce her recently premiered movie "Meth Head," she was constantly confronted by potential backers who felt that the movie would be "old news" and that methamphetamine use among gay men was "no longer a problem."
While it's true that methamphetamine (commonly referred to simply as meth) use among gay men has been around since the 1990s and is not as pervasive now as it was during its peak in 2002, substance abuse and health care programs across the country continue to see the devastating effects of this highly addictive drug.
"One out of four gay men in L.A. who are using any substance is using meth. That is a lot," said Cathy Reback, a researcher for UCLA who said that her data shows that meth use is still a huge problem.
Reback is executive director of Friends Community Center, a Los Angeles gay-specific treatment and research facility. She been collecting and analyzing data on the drug use of self-identified gay men in Los Angeles for more than a decade.
In 2002, Reback found that among gay men who reported using a drug in the previous 30 days of being asked, more than 50 percent said they had used meth. By 2007 that number had dropped to around 25 percent, where it has generally remained.
Pleased that the reported usage dropped so significantly, Reback also believes her data shows that meth use is still a huge problem.
More Gay Users Seek Help
According to Mike Rizza, a substance abuse counselor and manager of meth recovery services at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, his organization’s support groups and outpatient program for meth users are at capacity.
"We are still seeing really productive young men who get caught up in this drug dismantle their lives," said Rizza. "No one ever starts out using this drug with the intent that within two to three years their life is not going to resemble what it looked like the day they started."
Long-term meth use has many negative health consequences, including permanent brain damage and death. Users often become so obsessed with meth that they are unable to maintain employment and become financially crippled by the drug.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advices that a growing body of research supports the relationship between meth use by gay men and an increase in behaviors -- sexual and those related to injection drug use -- that can put the user at risk for HIV infection.
John McLauglin, a recovering meth user whose real-life story inspired the making of "Meth Head," struggled with meth for years before breaking free of the drug’s notoriously tight grip.
"I was living in West Hollywood, California, and partied on the weekend, as so many of us did. And, like the story has been told so many times, [my meth use on] Saturday through Sunday lead to Friday through Monday, which lead to Thursday through Tuesday, which lead to losing my job, losing my lover and losing my home," recalled McLauglin. "I was very lucky that I was able to make a phone call and get help."
New York’s GMHC has not seen an increase in the overall number of people who are actively using crystal meth. But Jeff Rindler, GMHC’s managing director for Program Services and Evaluation, said, "[GMHC] is seeing an increase of people who come to us while crashing from crystal meth and are in immediate need of mental health counseling. Often this is combined with extreme hunger from not eating for days, and they may be facing eviction due to all their money being spent on crystal meth and other drugs. There are times when GMHC feels like an emergency room."
On the Edge of a Possible Resurgence
The reported rises in the number of gay meth users seeking treatment has David Fawcett fearing a potential uptick in meth use among gay men.
Fawcett, a social worker with a large therapy practice in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. has worked in the areas of mental health and substance abuse for more than 25 years.
In a recent article for TheBodyPro.com, titled "Meth Makes an Ominous Comeback Among Gay Men," Fawcett wrote, "Now, because of the cycles of recreational drugs, a new generation, short memories and the seductive power of this dopamine-releasing supermolecule, the drug appears to be making a comeback, at least in the gay community."
Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at the Nova Southeastern University Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse, said that available epidemiological data does not show an increase in meth use among gay men in South Florida. But that doesn’t mean that Fawcett is wrong.
"[Meth] is a classical example of the cyclical nature that is followed by many drugs. There is an initial incubation period, followed by a rapid escalation, a plateau and then a decline," explains Hall.
As a drug ends its cycle of use in a population, there is always a chance it will start a new cycle of use.
Unfortunately, many factors are currently working in meth’s favor.
State and federal restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine -- a chemical needed for meth production -- passed when meth was on the rise, has caused an decline in the small production operations that initially supplied users. However, since that time, new techniques for making meth have developed and large Mexican drug cartels with established distribution systems have eliminated any supply problem.
"Our clients tell us that meth is easier to find than ever. It’s now meth anytime, anywhere," said Susan Alvarado, a prevention training specialist with AIDS Project Los Angeles’ crystal methamphetamine program.
The fact that many crystal meth prevention programs have ended or have been dramatically reduced due to a lack of funds or a belief that they were no longer needed is a common concern among drug abuse experts.
In the nation’s capital, the DC Crystal Meth Working Group is preparing a new prevention campaign after being on hiatus for many years.
"The gay community is such a fertile ground for meth to be introduced or reintroduced. If we don’t reinforce and keep the messages out there, people will forget," said Clinton Finch, chair of the DC Crystal Meth Working Group.
Each new generation of young gay men that has not been educated about the dangers of meth is a crop of potential new meth users.
Actor and activist Wilson Cruz hopes that "Meth Head" will help be part of a renewed discussion about meth use in the LGBT community. Cruz, who has a lead role in the movie, witnessed his former fiance struggle with a meth addiction that destroyed their relationship.
Cruz relates the current statistics about meth use to past reports about HIV rates, stating, "We can point to a time when the numbers showed that the cases of HIV were dropping among young gay men; however, that has unfortunately turned around. Part of the reason for that is that we stopped talking about it. We stopped shining a light on the issue."
"Just because meth is not talked about as much that doesn’t mean it has gone away," said Aleks Martin, a program coordinator for the Seattle Counseling Center’s Project NEON, a harm-reduction program for gay meth users.
Martin said that his program is seeing many young men, who are just coming out, turning to meth use to help them cope with the stigma of being gay. While the future rise or decline of meth is unclear, call for renewed attention to meth use is certainly growing.
"The biggest protective factor for preventing meth is to continue to educate people that it is a really bad drug," said Hall.