Guest author Courtney Willis writes for Time Out

By Jimmy Palmieri

About 40 men sit on fold-up chairs arranged in a circle in the upstairs room of Metropolitan Community Church.

They’re all crystal methamphetamine addicts in recovery. Some have been sober for two weeks, some two years.

It’s a Crystal Meth Anonymous meeting, based on the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous programme. This meeting is geared toward remembering the sixth step: the promises.

David, who declined to give his last name, used “Tina,” crystal meth’s street name.

He smoked it, snorted it and shot it up his veins. He was in the 12-step programme before he relapsed. And now that he’s lost his job over “Tina,” he’s back.

As the use of crystal methamphetamine rises in West Hollywood in California, city officials are looking for ways to curb this new epidemic and inform their residents of the risks of the drug.

The crystal methamphetamine epidemic in the gay community has flourished, said Hernan Molina, deputy to Councilman John Duran, because drug consumption has become more acceptable over the last 10 years.

“It’s now an issue of community norms and standards,” Molina said.

The drug is readily available, remains fairly affordable and is highly addictive, Molina said.

The social services department oversees collaborations between the city and non-profit agencies.

The city contracts with recovery houses to provide direct services to West Hollywood residents.

“Our funding is shifting from HIV and mental health to substance abuse and use,” said David Giugni, social services programme supervisor for West Hollywood.

They work with the McIntyre House and the Van Ness Recovery House in Los Angeles as well as the West Hollywood Recovery Center to directly target hard drug use, Giugni said.

“It’s alarming that we’re contracting more for services related to this issue,” Giugni said.

The two communities are close, which allows flexibility in unique programming.

The McIntyre House is an all male adult residential drug and alcohol recovery facility that houses, at most, 16 people at a time.

“We’re essentially a social model programme,” said Ed Kohler, the facility’s programme director.

The heavily-structured programme was set up for people who have had a difficult time getting sober.

Of the 16 residents, typically between 12 and 14 are crystal meth addicts in recovery.

“These men are willing to give up their jobs and apartments so the problem has to be pretty progressed and pretty severe,” Kohler said.

The non-profit recovery house is not supported by county or state funding. They ask residents to pay $800 a month or what they can, Kohler said.

“We accept anybody regardless of ability to pay,” he said.

The money goes toward a bed, three meals a day and onsite medical personnel counsellors.

Drug abuse tends to be most popular and widely accepted at secret parties, Molina said.

But the problem the city faces now, Giugni said, is they’re losing their target audience.

“It’s an interesting problem,” Giugni said. “Sex clubs are controversial but when (users are) there, we have a target audience. Now, more hook-ups are happening through the internet than anywhere else. We can’t find (the users) if they’re on the internet.”

“Hook-up sites serve their purpose,” said Jimmy Palmieri, an official on the Lesbian Gay Advisory Board, “but it becomes a way for people to buy and sell drugs.”

These sexually explicit sites allow for gay men to cruise, or look for someone in their area.

“In Southern California where there are huge gay communities, it’s much easier to meet people in the traditional way but say someone comes from a small gay community, he has to meet someone in a more clandestine place. Because of the shame, fear and guilt, these types of places are made,” Palmieri said.

“Who wants to meet the love of their life in a bathroom stall? But it’s a necessity,” he said.

In profiles, available to members, men describe themselves and what they’re looking for.

Palmieri said by taking an educated guess, he would say about 75 percent of those profiles asked or offered “Tina.”

“It’s a subculture and nobody’s getting it,” Palmieri said. “I don’t know if I would’ve seen something like that 10 years ago.”

“Tina” contains filler ingredients that many people do not know about, Palmieri said.

“These are chemicals you wouldn’t want to touch without a glove but yet people are snorting it, putting it in their rectum, swallowing it and putting it in their veins,” Palmieri said.

The drug is not hard to make. Many crystal meth labs are located in homes, Palmieri said, but because of all these ingredients, it’s extraordinarily dangerous to make.

“There’s a high concentration of crystal meth labs in southern California. Entire houses have exploded and sometimes even the two houses surrounding them,” Palmieri said.

The city of West Hollywood arranges community forums and conducts several social marketing campaigns to dispel myths and provide information on crystal meth.

Giugni said these marketing campaigns are different for each person. While others think scare tactics are too harsh, some respond to the wake-up call.

“You can’t say what’s going to grab who or the most people. We get a lot of flack for campaigns but just to have (people) look and talk about it, even if it’s offensive, that’s what we want,” Giugni said.

The new West Hollywood campaigns are being made to target youth and the younger generation of crystal methamphetamine users.

“It’s grittier, uglier and more shocking,” Giugni said.

West Hollywood hosted three town hall meetings last year to bring the use and consequences of crystal methamphetamine to light.

Because HIV and crystal meth are medically related, commercial sex venues and websites collaborated with the city, said Giugni, as well as the spiritual community.

“There lies in correlation with the rise of HIV infections and crystal meth. There is a direct parallel. You lose all inhibitions,” Palmieri said.

“It becomes a bathhouse drug, a party drug.”

Bathhouses are places for gay men to have sex, with anonymity and no strings attached, Molina said.

“This drug has an inexplicable ability to make gay men extraordinary libidinous. This drug and sexual compulsiveness go hand in hand. It makes people feel attractive, makes them feel (non-restrictive) and sexual for the first time,” Palmieri said.

Ken Howard, a licensed clinical social worker, focuses mainly on gay men and issues surrounding homosexuality. A third of his clients are men who are in recovery or dealing with some kind of substance abuse problem.

Crystal methamphetamine is the most common drug.

The reasons people start and end up addicted on the drug is multi-factorial, Howard said.

“From the users’ point of view, it works. It gives people a high. The problem is that it has a psychological purpose and has the tendency to be just what the doctor ordered,” Howard said.

“(Gay men) self-medicate themselves so they don’t have to think about the guilt (of indulging in gay sex.) The drug is serving a certain purpose. It’s counter-acting the anti-gay stigma in society and it’s allowing them to have guilt-free sex,” he said.

While it starts out as a solution, instead of continuing as a positive, it becomes negative, Howard said.

“What is ultimately the problem is that as high as it takes someone, it takes them down just as low,” Howard said.

Palmieri said crystal meth can put a user into such a pit when coming off the high that it is intolerable. So intolerable, users may consume more crystal meth just to ease the feeling.

“It becomes a destruction of your life fairly quickly. Six to eight months later, you are a skeletal creation,” Palmieri said.

Crystal meth creates a high where the user tends to ignore their own signals that normally indicate hunger and thirst.

The stimulation of the body and organs might lead them to be dehydrated. If you’re chronically dehydrated, that can cause dry mouth and dry mouth can lead to tooth decay, Howard said.

The stimulation of nerves can cause tooth-grinding.

“It creates an environment in your mouth where oral hygiene goes out the window,” Howard said.

Howard also said the body attempts to recognise the presence of crystal meth as a toxin and tries to get rid of it. This causes slight eruptions in the skin and people pick at them when they get nervous, making them vulnerable to infection.

It also causes a neurological condition that can eventually affect the heart.

Howard said it’s important to have effective services that address problems and addictions.

Crystal meth “hurts physical health, mental health and it certainly damages a person’s ability to think and behave clearly. It renders them jobless, homeless. It hurts their relationships,” Howard said.

Howard gets clients who are all over the place in their addiction and recovery. He starts where the client is.

“To work effectively with people, you can’t tell them to do more than they’re ready for. They won’t hear it or they won’t accept it,” Howard said.

When David lost his job, he dealt with great depression and eventually tried to commit suicide.

“That wasn’t my end point though,” David said.

Tony, another crystal meth addict in recovery, agreed.

“I tried to kill myself. It didn’t stop me. It almost made me like an icon with the people I was using with. All of a sudden they were coming to me for answers. In hindsight, what I was doing was self-medicating myself to get myself to the point where I could cope with reality,” Tony said.

“We have to be informative without pointing a finger,” said Palmieri, also the executive producer and director of “Tweakers,” a nonprofit outreach documentary showing case histories based on real-life situations.

The West Hollywood City Council passed a motion, introduced by Councilman John Duran, to endorse the local, independent production.

“Tweakers” is based on a book written by Frank Sanello about crystal meth, the gay community, and the destruction caused.

“This has become the new gay epidemic. We had HIV originally but it seems that (crystal meth) has hit so harshly our community,” said Palmieri.

The drug tends to boost levels of dopamine, a hormone that enhances mood, Molina said.

“(Crystal meth) releases dopamine in a way no other drug has. It puts you on such overload that your brain doesn’t understand it. All it knows is that it wants more,” Palmieri said.

Palmieri explained the amount of dopamine released by crystal methamphetamine by comparing it to the amount of dopamine released by food, sleep and sex.

You may pay your brain $5 in dopamine when you eat and sleep. You may pay $10 when you have sex, which shows why it’s a natural human desire. When you take crystal meth, you pay your brain $10,000 in dopamine, he said.

“You are never given that amount. It’s unnatural for your brain to understand what just happened,” Palmieri said.

The drug gives you a “real fanatic, manic high,” Giugni said, “but you’re starting to fry your brain.”

“You start to feel good about yourself. You feel powerful, sexy,” Molina said.

This sheds away all the internalised shame that many gay men carry, Molina said. “We’ve been ostracised and marginalised for so long that we’re more prone to addictive behaviour, especially with drugs like crystal meth,” Molina said.

Some gay men tend to self-medicate, Giugni said.

This leads crystal meth users to “open themselves up to behaviours, very risky, dangerous behaviours, they otherwise wouldn’t engage in,” Molina said.

“We want to provide information across the board. We want to show that although the drug may have initial result of feeling good, it progresses into such devastation in mind and body,” Palmieri said.

It quickly turns into something more than psychological, Palmieri said.

Palmieri said crystal meth has a 94 percent chance of relapse in the first year of sobriety compared to the 82 percent relapse rate for crack cocaine. And more than 80 percent of people who try crystal meth for the first time, have the desire to try it again.

“And thus beings their cycle,” Palmieri said.

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