When Zachary arrived at a hookup’s house he was taken aback by the luxury of it all – complete with a bird sanctuary, koi pond, square pool, hot tub, waterfalls, and a covered porch with couches.
“It reminded me of a resort,” the 20-year-old said. “It was beautiful, very well decorated. These people had a lot of money. The landscaping was immaculate.”
But it was the bird sanctuary that he remembers best. “It was something you’d see at the zoo. It was a big cage, you could fit a car inside of it.
But this was anything but a resort. Or a typical hook up. It was a sex and meth party.
After a guy on Grindr offered Zachary and his friend free drugs, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend. Zachary, a recovering drug addict, had recently relapsed on crack and wanted to get high.
But he wasn’t expecting a full-fledged group event when he showed up to the house in downtown West Palm Beach.
“I didn’t know till I showed up. I could tell it was definitely a regular thing like once or twice a month,” he said. “There was like this extravagance to it. It was very classy. They had coolers, drinks and Gatorades, a snack bar. It was a well organized event.”
And of course there was sex, a whole lot of sex – unprotected.
“It was all unsafe sex. I didn’t care because I was high. But I prefer bareback sex anyway,” he said. “In the two days that I was there, 75 or 80 percent of the time we were having sex.”
A few weeks later though Zachary did care when he worried that he might be positive himself. He wasn’t.
Crystal meth usage is back on the rise in the gay community and local efforts like ‘No More Meth’ are coming together to tackle the problem.
The Meth Comeback
Over the past few years, there has been a resurgence of methamphetamine use in the gay community; some have even called it an epidemic.
“The number of arrests involving crystal meth has doubled so far this year over 2013 in Fort Lauderdale,” said Michael Kasten, a committee chairperson on the No More Meth Task Force. “If you look at the actual arrests by sector they are in the gay neighborhoods of Fort Lauderdale.”
That’s 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.”
Ketcham though admitted that while 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. He’s been active in the gay men’s health movement and is currently working on a book on gay men, meth and sexual recovery.
“Two years ago I really saw an uptick in my private practice with gay men struggling with meth addiction,” he said.
Fawcett explained that after the federal government banned pseudoephedrine from store shelves in 2006, there was a drop-off in usage among gay men. Pseudoephedrine is the main ingredient in over the counter cold medicines such as Sudafed. It’s also the main ingredient used to make crystal meth.
“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.”
For illegal drug suppliers in Mexico meth is a big lure, because unlike cocaine and heroin that depend on the coca and poppy plants, meth can be made anywhere.
“Producing big quantities in America has become harder, as the authorities have cracked down on bulk purchases of the ingredients. So production is shifting to big and highly efficient labs in Mexico,” according to an article from 2012 in the Economist. “The cheap and potent meth they supply now provides some three quarters of the drug consumed in America. Seizures at the border rose from 1.3 tons in 2001 to 4.5 tons by the end of the decade.”
Fawcett said the meth coming out of Mexico is much more dangerous because of its potency.
“According to the Broward County Drug Task Force 22 kilos of crystal meth has been confiscated in 2014,” Kasten said. “Most of which came from Wilton Manors. That’s a street value of $5 million. That’s just this year. We’re in deep shit.”
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.”
Slamming On The Rise
Ryan Pyles will never forget the time he shot up meth and 20 minutes later his face started drooping, he began to slur his speech, and began to experience other classic symptoms of a stroke.
“I just thought I had done too much so I still continued to use afterwards,” the 26-year-old said. “It really was a pretty serious side effect. It was scary.”
But not scary enough to keep him away from meth.
He first tried the drug in college and didn’t like it. Three years later he was re-introduced to meth and within a month he was slamming the drug. Nine months later, he was in rehab.
As a medic Pyles never had a problem with injecting meth. Needles didn’t scare him. In the crystal meth world shooting up is known as ‘slamming.’
“When injecting, it’s much more intense and had a much more sexual charge to it for me,” Pyles said. “I started off by smoking it and then quickly started [shooting up]. The difference in smoking and injecting is almost like two separate drugs for me.”
Fawcett has also seen an uptick in slamming.
“That used to be a last resort,” he said. “Now it’s much more common to start by injecting. It’s really scary, and there is much more risk of an overdose.”
Combine slamming with the new potent meth coming out of Mexico and it’s a far more dangerous situation than years ago, Fawcett warned.
Pyles is currently serving a 42-month sentence in prison for drug conspiracy and possession with the intent to distribute. He hopes that with good behavior he’ll be released early and be in a halfway house by March of 2015, where he will have to spend at least 6 months. SFGN interviewed him via email while he was in prison.
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.”
Pyles can relate to the ritual.
“When I first started using meth IV, I was very into the ritual of preparing and injecting,” he said. “It was more so because I was very obsessed about the cleanliness and sterility of everything.”
The Culture of ‘Party and Play’
What makes crystal meth even more attractive to gay men is that the drug goes hand-in-hand with sex.
“When I was reintroduced to meth I was introduced to the sexual aspect of it as well. I was hooked from that point and began using regularly,” Pyles said. “I have always been a very sexual person and meth, particularly using it IV, made me get into this very animalistic insatiable mode.”
“It’s a very sexual drug,” he said. “You’ll have men masturbate for 30 hours until their bodies are just exhausted. They can’t satiate their sexual desire.”
Connaughty knows better than most about the difficulty of dealing with both addictions at the same time. Five years ago, he helped implement a sexual health program at the Pride Institute, an LGBT only treatment center in Minnesota.
“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.”
Local recovering meth addict Kevin Strouf, 52, said he understands all too well how meth is tied to sex. He first started using meth at circuit parties, which later led to sex parties.
“Nowadays people are being introduced to it through sex parties because circuit parties aren’t as popular anymore,” he said.
Once he got clean he made the decision to stay celibate for the first two years of his recovery.
“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 had to deal with both [addictions] at the same time.”
Connaughty said that most of addicts that come through Pride these days are addicted to meth.
As a single gay man Michael Kasten can’t stand being constantly hit up online to “party and play.”
“I don’t go to the bars. And online I am besieged with offers of PNP despite my profiles that say no drugs – no PNP,” he said. “I’m disgusted. I see this as an epidemic. It’s destroying the community.”
A lot of meth addicts combine their meth use with other drugs such as Viagra and ecstasy. Connaughty said recently he’s also been seeing the rise of “speedballs” which were traditionally a mixture of cocaine and heroin, but meth users are mixing meth and heroin to create a new type of “speedball.”
Another common drug that is used in conjunction with meth is GHB.
“GHB is a sedative and goes hand in hand with meth. First you get a blast of high from the meth and then the GHB evens you out,” Connaughty said. “Unfortunately with GHB it’s very easy to pass out and bad things can happen.”
HIV and Meth
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.
A rise in HIV infections among meth users is yet another disturbing trend Connaughty is also seeing.
“Within the gay population of 18 to 24 year olds we are seeing an increase of HIV,” he said. “There’s an increase of sexual activity and it exposes them to unsafe sexual practices.”
Pyles is one of those meth addicts living with HIV.
“I was definitely more promiscuous and having more unprotected sex,” he said. “But it could have also been from an accidental use of a dirty needle.”
For Zachary, the guy from the beginning of the story, HIV was the least of his concerns while he was getting high.
“One uncomfortable moment was when the kid I was with asked if everyone was clean [HV negative]. He even asked to see proof. That was really embarrassing. The owner said he was undetectable since 1995,” he said. “I know that HIV is very prevalent in the meth and group sex community so I had assumed everybody there was HIV positive anyway, so I didn’t need to ask. I was embarrassed because these people were giving us free drugs and he was putting stipulations on it.”
No More Meth
The resurgence of meth, combined with its increased dangers, prompted Fawcett to re-involve himself in combating meth addiction here in South Florida.
The program, ‘No More Meth,’ though 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 the ‘No More Meth Task Force.’
“We wanted to freshen it up and bring new people to the table,” he said.
Kasten, a committee chair, got involved because he’s seen the effects of meth first hand.
“I’ve had two friends that I watched from beginning of their use to their demise. These two individuals were from different facets of life – one was an attorney, a millionaire, and he lost everything,” he said. “The other person I dated. I found out he was using meth and I did an intervention. I’ve watched him relapse and go in and out of recovery.”
No More Meth’s first community event is Wednesday, Oct. 22 at the Pride Center in Wilton Manors from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The town hall meeting will feature a former meth user, David Fawcett, Jim Hall an epidemiologist and Howard Finklelstein, the Broward County Public Defender, and a recovering addict himself.
Visit NoMoreMeth.org for more information.
Kasten said that local law enforcement officers have also pledged to show up to the event.
“I have spoken directly to officers at the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Fort Lauderdale Police Department and Wilton Manors Police Department,” he said. “All of them are extremely concerned about the crystal meth problem here in South Florida.”
No More Meth also has a weekly group “Let’s Talk Meth” that meets every Wednesday from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at Fusion in Wilton Manors.
Kevin Strouf will never forget his last day using. He was in Orlando looking for more drugs when new dealer stole his money and he had to borrow $30 to buy a Greyhound bus ticket back to South Florida.
He was in a rush to get back to South Florida in order to be able to show up for his court appearance the next day to face drug related charges.
“It was the most horrendous trip,” Strouf said. “I just remember thinking, ‘What the fuck has my life come to? I have nothing.’ I started crying.”
Later that morning his attorney explained to him his choices: either go to drug court and adhere to its rules or don’t, and probably get two to four years of probation.
“I call it my one moment of clarity. I was totally desperate,” Strouf said. “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 LGBT recovery clubhouse in Fort Lauderdale. 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 recalls thinking. It was at that moment that he knew he had found a new home.
There’s 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,” he said. “Now there’s up to 100 people a night on the weekends.”
Meanwhile across the country in San Francisco some are pushing harm reduction based therapies as an alternate method of treatment. 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 oversees 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. He said harm reduction therapy is for the many people not yet ready for abstinence.
“One size does not fit all,” Discepola said, explaining that harm reduction based programs are more individual oriented. “You decide what your goals are. 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 good examples of successful harm reduction based programs.
“It reduces the transmission of HIV and other infections,” he said.
Currently there is no medication to treat meth addiction but that may change if the clinical trials of Ibudilast, a drug that is used to treat asthma and post-stroke complications, works on its human patients. The results of that trial are expected to be released in 2015.
Jimmy Palmieri is has made it his personal mission to help meth addicts get clean and into recovery. 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 3,000 members. So far through the project he’s been able to place more than 75 people into rehab for free.
Palmieri once dated a meth 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. “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.”
Strouf is grateful today as well. Almost five 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.
*Zachary did not want his last name revealed.
The History of Meth
From amphetamine to methamphetamine to crystal meth and beyond
Amphetamine was first made in 1887 in Germany and methamphetamine, more potent and easy to make, was developed in Japan in 1919. The crystalline powder was soluble in water, making it a perfect candidate for injection.
Methamphetamine went into wide use during World War II, when both sides used it to keep troops awake. High doses were given to Japanese Kamikaze pilots before their suicide missions. And after the war, methamphetamine abuse by injection reached epidemic proportions when supplies stored for military use became available to the Japanese public.
In the 1950s, methamphetamine was prescribed as a diet aid and to fight depression. Easily available, it was used as a nonmedical stimulant by college students, truck drivers and athletes, and abuse of the drug spread.
This pattern changed markedly in the 1960s with the increased availability of injectable methamphetamine, worsening the abuse.
Then, in 1970, the US government made it illegal for most uses. After that, American motorcycle gangs controlled most of the production and distribution of the drug. Most users at the time lived in rural communities and could not afford the more expensive cocaine.
- 1887: Amphetamines are first synthesized.
- 1919:Meth is developed by a pharmacologist in Japan. The drug alleviates fatigue and produces feelings of alertness and well-being.
- 1930s: Doctors begin using amphetamines in the U.S. to treat asthma and narcolepsy.
- 1932:The amphetamine Benzedrine is introduced as an over-the-counter bronchial dilator for the treatment of nasal and bronchial congestion associated with colds.
- World War II: Meth and amphetamine are given to Allied bomber pilots to sustain them on long flights. The experiment fails though because soldiers become irritable and can’t channel their aggression. Amphetamines were mostly used by soldiers to fight off fatigue and enhance performance.
- 1945-1950s:Post-war Japan experiences the first meth epidemic. It spreads to Guam, the U.S. Marshall Islands and to the U.S. West Coast.
- 1950s: Still marketed to treat obesity, narcolepsy and sinus inflammation, “pep pills” or “bennies” are sold for non-medical purposes. Some truckers, homemakers, college students and athletes pop pills to stay awake or keep active.
- 1960s: Doctors in San Francisco drug clinics prescribe injections of meth to treat heroin addiction.
- 1970: Meth, or speed, is regulated in the Controlled Substances Act and a public education campaign is mounted.
- 1980s: Drug treatment counselors see increased abuse among men who have sex with men. Mexican drug manufacturers begin exporting meth to the U.S. Crystal meth, a smokable form of meth, is created and is twice as potent as regular meth.
- 1990s: New ways to cook meth appear. Some new versions are four to six times stronger. Meth use begins and grows in the rural Midwest. Rural locations become ideal for cooking of meth because of geographic isolation and the available supply of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and anhydrous ammonia.
- 1993: Legislation is passed in 1993 that will require ephedrine pill sellers to register with the DEA, keep sales records, and report suspicious customers. The bill does not cover sellers of pseudoephedrine pills.
- 1996: Congress passes the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act, which regulates mail order and chemical companies selling precursor chemicals. For example, people who buy large quantities of red phosphorous, iodine and hydrochloric gas must show they will use them for legitimate purposes. Law enforcement agents are allowed to track large mail order purchases of pseudoephedrine, another precursor chemical.
- 2004: Oklahoma becomes the first state to pass a law placing limits on sales of pseudoephedrine to pharmacies and requiring retailers to sell pseudoephedrine products from behind the counter and ask purchasers to show I.D. and sign a register.
- 2006: The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 is passed. It regulates over-the-counter sales ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, phenylpropanolamine because of their use in the making of meth. Also in 2006 the U.N. World Drug Report calls meth the most abused hard drug on earth, and the world’s 26 million meth addicts equals the combined number for cocaine and heroin users. America has 1.4 million users, while globally the highest concentration of addicts is in East and Southeast Asia.
- 2009: The Mexican government recognizes there is a huge oversupply of pseudoephedrine coming into the country, and most of it is being diverted to the U.S meth trade. They decide to ban importation all together. With the Mexican cartels unable to get their hands on pseudoephedrine, the potency of the meth being smuggled into the U.S. plunges.
- 2010: Mississippi becomes the second state after Oregon to make pseudoephedrine products prescription only. Within a few months after enforcing the law, officials see a sharp drop in meth lab seizures and meth-related crime.