In The Gay Community, Meth Has Made an Unwelcome Comeback

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In The Gay Community, Meth Has Made an Unwelcome Comeback

By Jason Parsley 08/07/14

Why is meth still so popular in the gay community, and what can be done about it?

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After Kevin Strouf’s money was stolen from his new crystal meth dealer in Orlando, he had to borrow $30 to buy a Greyhound bus ticket back to South Florida where he was supposed to appear in court the next day.   

That bus ride is one he’ll never forget. It changed the course of his life. Sitting there, still high on meth but quickly coming down, he stared out the window watching the world pass him by on the Florida turnpike.

“It was the most horrendous trip,” Strouf, 52, said. “I just remember thinking ‘what the fuck has my life come to? I have nothing.’ I started crying.” 

He had no money. No food. And was days away from being evicted from his apartment. His attorney explained to him his choices later that day: either go to drug court and adhere to its rules or don’t, and probably get two to four years of probation. 

I can definitely see that crystal meth has become an epidemic; it has firmly established itself amongst the gay community, and it’s very sad.

“I call it my one moment of clarity,” Strouf said. “I was totally desperate. I knew I needed help, and I thought that maybe this was God’s way of helping me. And so I chose the drug court program.” 

That week he went to his first 12-step meeting at a local LGBT recovery clubhouse. As he was leaving he saw a poster for a Crystal Meth Anonymous meeting.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God. There’s an actual program for this,’” he said. He had found a new home. 

Many meth addicts are not as lucky as Strouf. Over the past few years, there has been a resurgence of methamphetamine use in the gay community; some have even called it an epidemic, which is why Mark Ketcham, executive director of SunServe in South Florida, was so eager to host and help fund the ‘No More Meth’ program.

“I asked at one of our events for someone to match the $5,000 grant the ‘No More Meth’ program received from another organization,” he said. “We matched it in four minutes. I will do anything I can to alleviate this problem.”

While Ketcham admitted meth use is a huge problem, he also understands why there are so few programs targeting the issue. 

“It’s such a tough problem. There’s such a high rate of recidivism; you don’t get much success,” Ketcham said. “If you know you’re not going to win, it’s hard to take it on, but we have to start somewhere. We have to start addressing the whys. It’s an uphill battle, this damn thing. It’s just very frustrating.” 

David Fawcett is the chairman of ‘No More Meth’ and a psychotherapist with a practice in Wilton Manors, Fla. He has been active in the gay men’s health movement and is currently working on a book on gay men, methamphetamine and sexual recovery. 

“Two years ago I really saw an uptick of meth addicts in my private practice,” he said. 

Fawcett explained that after the federal government banned pseudoephedrine (the main ingredient in over the counter drugs such as Sudafed and the drug used to make crystal meth) from store shelves in 2006, there was a drop-off in usage among gay men. 

“But there were unintended consequences,” Fawcett said. “Since there was a gap in supplies, Mexican drug cartels stepped up their production of industrial strength meth, so really the government regulation only put the mom-and-pop labs out of business.”

Fawcett said the meth coming out of Mexico is much more dangerous because of its potency. On top of that many more gay men are now injecting, “slamming,” the drug rather than smoking or snorting it. 

“That used to be a last resort,” Fawcett said. “Now it’s much more common to start by injecting. It’s really scary, and there is much more risk of an overdose.” 

Ryan Pyles, a 26-year-old meth addict, never had a problem with injecting. As a medic, needles didn’t scare him. Within a month of being re-introduced to meth, he was slamming the drug. Nine months later, he was in rehab.  

“When injecting, it’s much more intense and had a much more sexual charge to it for me,” Pyles said.

Pyles is currently serving a 42-month sentence in prison for drug conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute. He hopes with good behavior he’ll be in a halfway house by March of 2015. The Fix interviewed him via email while he was in prison. 

“I can definitely see that crystal meth has become an epidemic,” Pyles said. “I have been in many gay communities across the United States and overseas, and crystal meth is something that has been a constant wherever I have gone. I could argue that about any drug with any community, but crystal meth has seemed to have firmly established itself amongst the gay community, and it’s very sad.”

Pyles has been clean since February of 2012. 

Unlike Pyles, Strouf never injected meth, but a lot of the people he encounters in recovery these days have. 

“Most of the people I know nowadays, that’s what they do, they slam it,” Strouf said. “The high is instantaneous, and it’s much more intense.” 

Todd Connaughty, director of clinical services at the Pride Institute in Minnesota, said he’s also seen an increase in the number of gay men slamming. 

“After injecting it, there’s like an explosion in your brain,” he said. “The high is more intense, it lasts longer and brain chemistry reacts differently. There’s an even bigger release of dopamine and serotonin using IV.”

Connaughty said the ritual of slamming can also become addictive.

“Some clients inject each other, so there’s this sense of intimacy injecting someone and a sense of connectedness,” Connaughty said.  

The resurgence of meth, combined with its increased dangers, prompted Fawcett to re-involve himself in combating meth addiction.  

His program, ‘No More Meth,’ isn’t really a new group; it’s a re-imagination of several other groups Fawcett has belonged to over the last the 12 years. First, he was the chair of the ‘South Florida Meth Task Force,’ then he formed ‘Meth and Men’ in 2006. By 2008, as meth-use dropped, the program died. In 2013, he re-launched ‘Meth and Men’ which recently became ‘No More Meth.’

“We wanted to freshen it up and bring new people to the table,” he said. 

But why is meth specifically attractive to gay men? Fawcett has a theory.

“There’s something called cognitive escapism; it’s the numbing out of uncomfortable feelings,” Fawcett said. “Meth comes along and neutralizes a lot of feelings and energizes these people. Initially meth makes them feel attractive, makes them not care what other people think.”

Strouf can relate. 

“It made me feel like superman. Like I could do anything. It gave me confidence. And it kept me up,” Strouf said.

But what makes crystal meth even more attractive to gay men is that the drug goes hand-in-hand with sex.  

While sex didn’t lead Strouf to meth, the two quickly became intertwined leading him to sex and meth parties. And when he stopped using it, he felt in order to stay clean he needed to back away from sex as well. 

“I got off all of the websites, apps, and stayed away from the Internet,” Strouf said. “I was just as addicted to those websites and hooking up. I made the decision to stay celibate for my first two years. I had to deal with both [addictions] at the same time.” 

Connaughty knows better than most about the difficulty of dealing with both addictions at the same time. Five years ago, he helped institute the currently active sexual health program at the Pride Institute.

“It specifically focuses on gay men with crystal meth addiction and sexual compulsory issues,” Connaughty said. 

Connaughty said it’s important to address both issues together and agrees that meth usage among gay men is back on the rise.

“The two issues are intertwined and hard to separate,” Connaughty said. “We have to look at the underlying issues, the validation they get, the sense of intimacy, the increased confidence, and then look at how to create that without the use of methamphetamines and sexual activity.” 

As if sex and meth combined weren’t enough, HIV infections are much more common in meth users. Not only does unsafe sex pose a risk, but sharing needles does as well. 

“The other thing about meth is that it turns off one’s frontal cortex which creates a lack of impulse control which leads to all kinds of risky sexual behavior, and that’s why there is such a high rate of HIV infection among meth users,” Fawcett said. 

The risk of HIV is one of the many reasons Mark Ketcham supports the ‘No More Meth’ program. 

“Meth use is a huge factor in the transmission of HIV. When you’re high on meth the last thing you’re going to think about is safer sex,” Ketcham said. 

Aside from rehab-related therapy, there has been a tremendous growth in Crystal Meth Anonymous over the past five years, especially in South Florida. 

“When I first started going to CMA there were maybe 10 to 15 people at a meeting,” said Kevin Strouf. “Now there’s up to 100 people a night on the weekends.” 

In San Francisco some are pushing harm reduction based therapies as an alternate method of treatment. And that’s how Tweaker.org, an informational website providing support and resources about crystal meth use, came about. 

“This was designed by and for gay men who use meth,” said Mike Discepola, director of the Stonewall Project, which developed Tweaker.org. “We want to help people understand how meth impacts brain and body, help them to choose to reduce the harm of the drug. For instance, reduce their amount of using or move from injecting to snorting or another less harmful method.”

Discepola said the basic premise behind harm reduction is having participants take any positive step toward reducing harm in their life. 

“It’s sort of like when we teach children to look both ways when they cross the street, that’s harm-reduction,” Discepola said.

Discepola said harm reduction therapy is for the many people not yet ready for abstinence. 

“One size does not fit all,” Discepola said.

Harm reduction based programs are more individual oriented.

“You decide what your goals are,” Discepola said. “The truth of the matter is not everyone is prepared to stop every substance. We help people at the place where they are. We don’t demonize drugs and alcohol. We encourage people to make positive choices in their life.”

Discepola points to needle distribution programs as an example of a harm reduction based program. 

“It’s a really good example because it reduces the transmission of HIV and other infections,” Discepola said. 

Jimmy Palmieri has made it his personal mission to help those addicted to meth. He launched the Tweakers Project eight years ago, which now includes a movie, “Tweakers,” an anti-meth ad campaign, and a Facebook group that now boasts more than 2,800 people. Through the project he’s been able to place more than 75 people into rehab for free so far. 

Palmieri once dated an addict for eight years and understands the impact addiction can have, not only on the individual, but the loved ones as well. 

“This was a very good man doing very bad things to himself,” Palmieri said. “He was always good to me. It was so painful to watch. It clicked in my head that maybe I could be somewhat of a voice someone would pay attention to. I am just grateful it has worked out the way that it has.” 

Kevin Strouf is grateful today as well. Four and a half years later he’s still clean, still attends meetings and has never been happier. For him it was the police that gave him the best present ever. 

“It was a gift from God for me to get arrested,” he said. 

Jason Parsley lives in Boynton Beach, Florida and is the Associate Publisher of the South Florida Gay News. He last interviewed the acting US Drug Czar.

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Jason Parsley lives in Boynton Beach, Florida and is the Associate Publisher of the South Florida Gay News. Find Jason on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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