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Breaking the Crystal Grip
by Andrew Davis

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Pictured Some say events such as Fireball foster drug use, while others say such substance abuses occur every night at gay bars. Photo by Kirk Williamson

Part I

Haymarket Center held a public forum at Uptown Bank Feb. 24 to discuss the skyrocketing use of crystal methamphetamine throughout Chicago, particularly in the gay community.

According to Kennis Williams, the center's coordinator of health and education, the meeting ( which was attended by merchants, service providers, and the general public ) was an opportunity for people to come together to learn about the drug and to air their concerns.

Individuals expressed concern about being seen as judgmental if they spoke out about meth; in addition, some were also worried about the perception that all gay men indulge in the drug.

A numbers game

Certainly not all gay men take meth; however, enough arrests have happened ( with more likely to come ) for community leaders to become alarmed. 'Things have been bad for a while; however, we have a lot more evidence now,' according to Lora Branch, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health's STD/HIV Prevention & Care Program.

'The recent arrests that have appeared in the media have heightened our consciousness about how bad it's getting,' Branch said.

Although no hard statistics have been released regarding meth use in Chicago, the numbers in other cities and states do not bode well for the Windy City. 23rd District police lieutenant Bob Stasch told Windy City Times that the number of search warrants executed over the past two years rose from 14 in 2003 to 68 in 2004.

In Hawaii, The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program revealed that in 2001, 38.1 percent of adult males arrested from January to September 2001 tested positive for meth abuse. Even downstate Illinois is becoming a hub of meth-related activity. According to press material from the Web site of state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the number of meth labs seized by the Illinois State Police increased by more than five times over the last four years, from 87 labs in 1998 to 666 in 2001. Also, in downstate Illinois communities, meth accounts for up to 90 percent of all illegal drug cases.

There is also reportedly a stunning correlation between crystal meth use, unsafe sexual practices, and sexually transmitted diseases ( STDs ) . According to information garnered from the Henry Ford Health System Web site, several recent studies from San Francisco document the link between crystal meth use and unsafe sex.

One study found that 16 percent of gay and bisexual men used crystal meth the last time they had anal sex; the users were twice as likely as others to not use condoms during receptive anal sex. The same study found that gay men who visited a health clinic were twice as likely to be infected with the AIDS virus—and almost five times as likely to be diagnosed with syphilis—if they had recently used the illegal drug. Another study reported that 17.4 percent of gay and bisexual men who visited an STD clinic had used crystal meth within the past four weeks.

Research in Seattle suggests that gay and bisexual crystal meth users are three to four times more likely to be infected with HIV than other gay and bisexual men.

So addictive

Part of the problem is that crystal meth is relatively inexpensive to make and the profits can be huge. 'People can take the right ingredients and make a good amount for about $250 and then turn around and sell it for up to $18,000,' Stasch told Windy City Times.

Another problem is that the high is intense and long-lasting—sometimes stretching for days. A euphoria that intense and long can easily lure vulnerable people to destruction. According to, the chemical rush is equivalent to 600 times the normal amount of dopamine and norepinepherine released into the body naturally when people feel good.

'There's a guy who I arrested [ recently ] ,' 23rd District officer Nenad Markovich told Windy City Times during a Feb. 8 talk. 'We executed a search warrant on him about eight months ago; he had a residence then. Due to his use, he lost his place—but every little bit of money he finds goes to getting more crystal. It just kills me.'

What is even worse is that sometimes users combine meth with a sexual enhancement drug such as Viagra. What happens is that the user can have sex for hours or days at a time—being involved in unsafe practices all the while.

Winding up with an STD is only one potential side effect of meth use. Among the plethora of other damaging results the drug can cause are rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, stroke, inflammation of the heart lining, hyperthermia ( elevated body temperature ) , convulsions, and death. Users can also experience paranoia, anorexia, irritability, and physical aggression.

The potential for addiction often leads people to wonder if there can be such a thing as a recreational meth user ( as opposed to a chronic one ) . According to Williams, data recently presented by Haymarket Center clinical director Dan Lustig show that one may be a casual user—but not for long.

'Current scientific studies show that crystal meth damages a person brain so quickly and permanently that recreational use is short-term at best,' she said.

Branch, while stating a different perspective, expressed the hope that people can be helped at different stages. 'Hopefully, we can stage interventions at different points; there may be people who are just starting to use, people who are feeling that they're slipping, and people who've lost everything. I do believe that we have to be responsive to where people are.'

Battle plans

Things have gotten to the point where community leaders feel that a multi-pronged approach is necessary to combat the epidemic.

The AIDS Foundation of Chicago hosted a forum of activists and community leaders Feb. 22, with Ald. Tom Tunney and representatives from AFC, the Chicago Department of Public Health, Center on Halsted, Test Positive Aware Network, Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, Jelani, Haymarket, Chicago House, Vital Bridges, Steamworks, Task Force Prevention, University of Illinois School of Public Health, South Side Help Center, Greg Harris from Ald. Mary Ann Smith's office. Media representatives were allowed in but the meeting was off the record—it was a brainstorming session to decide the next steps in a comprehensive approach to combatting the epidemic.

The gay media have run anti-meth campaigns in the past year, and Windy City Times has featured several cover stories on the drug's destruction.

Lora Branch is involved in social marketing programs to help battle the problem. Michael Bauer suggested at the meeting that he knows funders who would help underwrite a massive educational campaign.

Branch said one of the city's approaches will involve a video that will train service providers. 'This video is targeting substance abuse treatment providers who may not be sensitive to the needs of LGBT individuals. It's basic information about our community and needs; it also shows how providers can be helpful and how they cannot. Within the video, there's also a [ brief ] description of the effect crystal meth has had on the LGBT community. Braden Berkey from Howard Brown [ Health Center ] addresses the problem from a clinical perspective, but we also have a person in recovery who tells what [ addiction ] was like.' In addition, Branch said that an accompanying press release and discussion guide are in the works.

Branch also said a comprehensive report will be released soon. ( It is currently in the final editing stages. ) 'This document discusses meetings we've had about these issues; it also talks about training, policy, and resources ˆ and crystal meth is a big piece of that.'

Interestingly, the approach to market the problem with meth use will mirror the tactics used with Chicago's Syphilis Elimination Task Force ( SETF ) . The SETF campaign has employed everything from public transportation advertisements to a Web site ( ) . The result has been that the number of syphilis cases has decreased in Chicago, while cases have risen elsewhere in the country.

'We definitely plan to replicate the methodology used with the Task Force campaign,' Branch said. 'We'll be doing social marketing campaigns and bringing people together to plan events and get ideas. There will also be a web site.'

Dr. Will Wong of the Chicago Department of Public Health has several ideas about getting the word out about meth. 'We can educate health providers and staff members about methamphetamines; that will be key in dealing with the problem. We can also educate the general public about the dangers of [ the drug ] , such as the link to various STDs. We can also support organizations, such as Test Positive Aware Network and Haymarket Center, that supply treatment services for crystal meth and other drugs.'

Aligned with Downstate

A unique development that has resulted from expansive meth use is an alliance ( of sorts ) between Chicago's LGBT community and downstate Illinois legislators. The bond is primarily the outcome of the spread of meth from rural to urban regions. ' [ Meth ] has historically been produced in rural areas. It's been a much bigger problem in Downstate areas and it's potentially going to be a huge problem in Chicago unless we do something quick, smart, and organized on the supply and demand sides,' said Mark Ishaug, executive director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Williams echoed Ishaug's remark: 'It starts in rural areas because it's harder to detect the [ pungent ] smell and not as many people get hurt if there's an explosion. Then, the transportation and the making of meth spreads to urban areas.'

In response to the situation downstate, legislators in that region have decided to attempt to push two bills through the General Assembly. The bills, HB0662 and SB0107, would amend the Illinois Controlled Substances Act and the Methamphetamine Manufacturing Chemical Retail Sale Control Act by making a mixture containing any detectable quantity of pseudoephedrine ( a key meth ingredient ) to be an illegal substance. Should the measures pass, people would have a much harder time manufacturing and dealing meth—both downstate and in Chicago.

Part II will look at local resources for crystal meth users and those concerned about them.

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