In order to gauge the sense of progress made in combating methamphetamine use in the local GLBT community, the Chicago Crystal Meth Task Force held a large community meeting on Dec. 5, entitled 'Tina Talks: Where are We Now?'
Roughly 45 people from many parts of the community—health and medical professionals; concerned citizens; former addicts; and even politicians—attended the forum at the North Side's Joseph Stockton Elementary School. The general consensus by the end of the evening, after hearing how much progress has been made to combat the issue, was that much more still needs to be done.
Panelists representing various aspects of the fight against meth presented for the first section of the evening, followed by a Q&A session. The last hour was dedicated to a community speakout, where the audience could voice suggestions, critiques and concerns.
Jim Pickett, who works for AIDS Foundation of Chicago and is co-chair of the task force, opened the event by saying he felt Chicago's response to crystal meth has been 'notable,' particularly because it has been such a community-wide response. 'People have come together under one tent,' Pickett added. 'It's been real members of the community,' including former and current meth users; public health workers; law enforcement officers; and many more.
'We are moving forward,' he continued. 'We aren't stuck here.'
Nik Prachand of the Chicago Department of Public Health ( CDPH ) provided recent data in order to put the issue of meth in the GLBT community into perspective.
There are 35 million meth users worldwide, and 1.4 million Americans reported using in 2004. CDC ( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ) data also shows that 10 percent of Chicago MSM ( men who have sex with men ) have used in the past year, with 2 percent using weekly or more.
According to data collected by the Crystal Meth Task Force in 2004, 44 percent of MSM used some drug in the past year. White MSM make up 14 percent of meth users in the past year. The largest percentages of meth users were between ages 30-39, followed by those 20-29. Users tended to have larger incomes ( 35 percent made over $45,000 per year ) , and tested for HIV just as often as non-users.
Data collected by the task force also showed that the number of partners MSM had, occurrence of unprotected anal sex with casual partners in the past year and HIV-positivity all increased dramatically with meth use—with rates becoming two to three times higher for MSM who use once a week or more.
A recent survey conducted by Test Positive Aware Network ( TPAN ) shed light on the current situation. Of 309 surveyed, most thought meth was a significant problem in the community, and is the drug most commonly used. Forty-five percent reported using meth, and 75 percent reported having unprotected sex while high on the drug.
In November 2006, Steamworks asked 658 men, 20 percent of which felt meth use has increased in the past year. Twenty-nine percent knew someone who used, 7 percent used in the past year and 61 percent reported feeling not enough was being done to educate the community and prevent use.
In the spring of 2006, Crystal Meth Task Force collected data to gauge the effectiveness of its Crystal Breaks campaign, which was unveiled during Market Days. Of 159 men interviewed, 50 percent reported seeing the campaign. Eighty percent felt the ads were good at raising awareness and 55 percent felt encouraged to talk to someone they knew about meth use.
There has been a 'dramatic change' in the past year in terms of the relationship between the community and law enforcement when it comes to crystal meth, according to the 23rd Precincts' Lt. Robert Stasch.
Stasch said a year ago, meth use in Chicago was 'open and notorious,' which allowed police to easily get information regarding meth deals. Now, 'On the streets itself, they [ the community ] have accepted the use of meth,' Stasch said.
The negative attitude toward methamphetamine has shifted to one of acceptance, he said, and the purchase of the drug is now going underground, which makes it harder for local police to investigate.
However, police have reported 36 meth incidents so far in 2006, resulting in the seizure of over $4 million of the narcotic, or the equivalent of just over two pounds, Stasch said. He added that the police focus is on dealers, not users.
Chicago police have also noticed another new trend. Out-of-state dealers are following large shows and venues, such as the annual Pride Parade, to take advantage of the 400,000-plus crowds.
During the community speak-out portion of the evening, Stasch pleaded with the community to take action. 'Nobody is picking up the phone and saying there is this guy selling these drugs at this place and this time,' he said. 'It's become acceptable to the community, and people ignore it because it doesn't effect them directly yet. In one way or another, we are all going to pay for it.'
Stasch encouraged people to call 312-744-6207, 911 or 311 to report the dealing of meth. If the caller wishes, he or she can remain anonymous.
In the past year, Illinois law has gotten stricter in order to cut down on the number of meth labs, particularly Downstate.
Steve Wrone, consumer policy advisor for the Illinois attorney general's office, spoke about the well-known legislation on cold medication. Cold medications containing a certain ingredient are used to make methamphetamine. When the attorney general's office saw border states such as Iowa coming up with much tougher laws, leading buyers to come to Illinois to make their purchases because of a loophole, Illinois passed the Meth Precursor Control Act, one of the toughest meth-related laws around.
The act, which took effect in January, keeps cold medications containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter; limits the number of packages that can be purchased; and requires the purchaser to show ID and sign a confidential log.
'It's, in fact, working,' Wrone said, adding that the law has reduced the number of labs in Illinois. In fact, the number of labs seized in the state have dropped by nearly half this year.
Wrone said that the law is not a 'magical cure,' but it seems to be helping. 'Users will get the drug somewhere,' he said, adding that the attorney general's office is looking into preventing abuse and treating the addicted.
Treatment for meth addicts has advanced in Chicago, allowing for a variety of levels of care through various organizations.
One major shift has been the level of outpatient care. According to Vanessa Ford, coordinator of Howard Brown's Recovering with Pride program, there used to be a large gap in outpatient services for meth users. Now, with programs through places such as Howard Brown Health Center, that gap has been bridged.
Ford said the perception and stereotypes of meth addicts have also changed. Caregivers once thought addicts used once a week or so, but are now aware that there are users who even do meth once a year. 'There's been a shift in understanding in the community,' she said. Recognizing the different levels of addiction has lead to a variety of programs for users.
Howard Gelb—care manager for Howard Brown's Crystal Clear program, a recovered addict and co-founder of Chicago's Crystal Meth Anonymous ( CMA ) —spoke about the change in CMA services. When he started a few years back, only three people attended the meeting. Now, CMA provides seven meetings a week, with more than 100 people attending. Although in Chicago the meetings mostly consist of gay men, Gelb predicts that like other cities, there will be a large shift in who attends meetings due to the drug impacting other communities within Chicago.
Many issues were touched upon during the final portion of the event, where community members were allowed to make suggestions and voice concerns. The general sense was that there is much more to be done to combat the drug.
A member of the DuPage County Health Department reminded people not to forget to reach out to the collar counties, and that suburban MSM also come to Chicago's bars, clubs and bathhouses, but lack much information regarding meth.
Others suggested conducting more outreach through the Internet, creating a campaign with more direct messages about the consequences of meth use, addressing the underlying issues of why GLBT people are drawn to the drug and reaching out to adolescents and more non-users about meth.
Lora Branch of the Chicago Department of Public Health wondered if the Crystal Meth Task Force and other organizations should be thinking about the next stage, such as stressing prevention to non-users or focusing on treatment. Others agreed, providing ideas for reaching out to gay-straight alliances and GLBT youth to prevent the problem from spreading.
When members of Crystal Meth Task Force asked attendees their opinions on the progress Chicago has made, of those who voted, 13 said they felt the crystal meth problem has gotten better, while nine said it's the same and six said the situation has gotten worse.
The Crystal Breaks campaign, launched by the Crystal Meth Task Force during Northalsted Market Days, is not the only way the city will tackle the meth issue, Pickett said, as he also mentioned Project Crystal Prevention ( CRYSP ) , a five-year prevention project to combat methamphetamine use and high-risk sex in the GLBT community. The project will be a collaboration between four agencies: TPAN, Howard Brown Health Center, Center on Halsted and AIDS Foundation of Chicago. The project's goal is to increase community knowledge of the connections between meth use, high-risk sex and Internet use, as well as the link between crystal usage and HIV/STDs.
CRYSP will include educational and social marketing initiatives, such as Internet outreach, to address the effects of using crystal and advocate for services and policies. Those heading the project hope this multi-pronged, inter-agency approach will lead to the decrease of meth use and high-risk sex. The grant which funds the project targets four zip codes—covering the area from about Fullerton to Granville—on Chicago's North Side, where most of the real numbers of users are located.
The first year ( 2007 ) will be a design phase, and it will be implemented in years two through five.
For more information about meth and treatment options, see crystalbreaks.org .