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Crystal meth linked to AIDS in New York

The "party" drug Crystal meth that is all the rage in New York’s hedonistic gay bathhouses is eroding progress made in the fight against AIDS.
/ Source: Reuters

Tina, crank, chalk and ice may sound like innocuous monikers for a “party” drug but the substance that is all the rage in New York’s hedonistic gay bathhouses is eroding progress made in the fight against AIDS.

Use of crystal meth, or methamphetamine -- what used to be known as “speed” -- has become rife among the sexually-promiscuous in the gay community. That drug use has spurred an increase in unprotected anal sex that has alarmed city health officials and AIDS activists.

“The bottom line is that crystal meth is a dangerous drug,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden said. “It also increases HIV risk, and we’re seeing it increasingly in New York.”

Highly addictive and readily available, the drug’s effects when smoked include impaired judgment, loss of control and a voracious sexual appetite. Coupled with a sense of invulnerability, it creates a perfect environment for spreading AIDS, experts say.

Bathhouses, popular venues for some gay men seeking no-strings-attached sex, are the front line of the problem. Drug use, though prohibited, is widespread and some patrons stay high for an entire weekend binge, engaging in sex with dozens of partners.

A decade ago, widespread adoption of safer-sex practices by gay men and significant strides in drug development nearly stabilized the U.S. AIDS epidemic. Death rates plummeted by two-thirds and the level of new HIV infections dropped.

HIV linked to crystal
One salesman at a large U.S. AIDS drug maker who asked not to be named said, “All the doctors in my territory who have seen (an increase in HIV infection) all related them to crystal meth use.”

Activists are trying to tackle the problem.

“There was a huge pool of untapped anger about what this drug is doing to our community, and that anger has come forward,” said Peter Staley, who left a Wall Street career in the 1980s to join ACT-UP -- a group credited with pressuring drug companies and the government to change the way they conduct trials and make new drugs available.

“Everybody’s talking about it now. Six months ago nobody was,” said Staley, himself a recovering crystal user. “The denial is beginning to crumble.”

While there is still a lack of hard data connecting crystal meth use with HIV infection, studies have found that gay men using the drug are less likely to use condoms and more likely to have multiple, anonymous partners. They are also more likely to contract sexually-transmitted diseases like syphilis and hepatitis and to be infected with HIV.

Use of crystal meth is also growing in the wider community. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is America’s fastest-growing drug threat, with the Office of National Drug Control policy finding that 8 percent of high school seniors reported having tried it at least once.

Because it can be manufactured using common household products such as iodine and drain cleaner, crystal meth has been especially popular in rural areas and among lower socioeconomic groups. About $100 in materials can produce $1,000 worth of the drug, which has proven even more popular upstate than in New York City, according to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer’s office.

Destructive path
Among gay men, anecdotal evidence of its use and destructive path is mounting: Five years ago there were no support groups for people trying to kick the drug at New York’s gay and lesbian community center. The center now averages one meeting a day.

The hotline at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the city’s oldest and largest AIDS support group, fields a half-dozen or more calls each day about crystal meth.

AIDS activist Staley took action himself, using $6,000 of his own money on a series of posters that went up in telephone booths with the message: “Buy crystal, get HIV free.”

While a host of what are deemed unsafe sex acts have been banned at bathhouses since the 1980s, the city’s bathhouses mostly offer private rooms, where sexual activity is beyond surveillance. Condoms are provided but many patrons say resistance to using them is high.

And so is crystal meth use.

Some on the front lines of the AIDS battle say the city could be stricter about condom distribution in bathhouses.

In Los Angeles, where the crystal meth craze took root earlier, city officials are considering tougher enforcement of bathhouse regulations, which currently dictate that patrons use condoms.

But even if the bathhouses disappeared overnight, the drug problem would not because of the increased use of the Internet to arrange for anonymous sexual encounters.

“Crystal meth is now a problem anywhere gay men have sex,” Staley said. “If you shut down the bathhouses, you wouldn’t make a dent in the meth epidemic because most (anonymous sex) is done through Internet hookups.”

Staley said anyone online “can find any number of people or sex parties somewhere in New York, at any time of day and any day of the week, where crystal meth is being smoked.”

City officials plan to launch a $300,000-plus program and task force to fight crystal meth use in the gay community this summer, but Frieden pointed out that “one of the real challenges is that we don’t have a treatment for it,” apart from support groups such as 12-step programs.