City’s Point Man on Meth

Brett Larson leads Office of Gay and Lesbian Health, filling long-time gap

Eight days before Brett Larson officially became the director of the Office of Gay and Lesbian Health in the city’s health department, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the health commissioner, said that office would take the lead on responding to crystal meth use among gay men in New York City.

While that is not baptism by fire, most people would likely prefer that they not start their new job by taking on a hot button issue.

Larson is unfazed.

“It’s a tremendous challenge,” the 48-year-old said. “I’m excited to do it. They are letting me the the lead on so many initiatives.”

Larson has to roll out a public heath campaign targeting crystal and he is committed to doing that by June. The health department has $300,000 in unspent federal funds from 2003 to use on an anti-meth campaign. One question is whether the city will fund its own campaign or give that cash to a private organization that has already developed anti-crystal messages.

Some AIDS groups are agitating for the latter option. Larson will not say what the department will do.

“I can’t really talk about that right now, but we’ll know soon,” he said. “What we’re looking to do is get the money out as quickly as possible. We want to get [the campaign] out definitely in the month of June for gay pride.”

Larson and his staff of four must also produce a one-day seminar on June 16 for doctors, psychologists, and other healthcare providers on treating meth users and how to recognize those users.

“You’ve got to educate the public, but now we’ve got to educate providers, people who may not know that they are seeing patients who are using it,” he said.

Larson also chairs a meth task force at the health department. That task force includes only health department staff except for a detective from a training unit in the police department’s Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB). The police department’s narcotics division is part of OCCB.

“I don’t really know what [the police] are going to bring or if they are just want to listen to what we are proposing,” Larson said.

At an April 20 meeting with reporters, Frieden said that law enforcement’s role was to arrest major drug distributors and reduce the supply of crystal. That will have an impact on meth use by making the drug less available and more expensive.

“The commissioner separates very clearly what the police department does from what the health department does,” Larson said.

The health department asked that the police join the task force, according to Larson. Including the cops might prove controversial.

“I hope not,” Larson said. “Our mission is really clear, to educate for prevention and increase the ability for care, to get people who are using into care… I really see them as separate missions.”

Larson joined the health department on February 16 after spending roughly four years working at the Bellevue Hospital Center overseeing managed care programs and, previously, HIV services. Prior to Bellevue, Larson headed education and outreach at the Staten Island AIDS Task Force for a year. Larson and Stephen Karpiak, his partner of 18 years, lived in Phoenix from 1994 through 1999 where Larson worked with several AIDS groups.

Born and raised in Montana, Larson first arrived in New York City in 1979 to pursue a career in the theater. He came just in time to watch HIV sweep through the city’s gay community. It was a terrible period for many gay men.

“In the early days of the epidemic, you thought the die was already cast and you just waited to get sick,” said Larson who is HIV negative. “Then your friends would get sick and they would move home to die. It was very rapid in those days.”

Larson had some success in the theater, but by the late 80s he earned a graduate degree in business management at New York University. He worked at Columbia University before moving to Arizona.

In addition to the crystal meth initiatives, Larson has a broad mandate—to educate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community about health and educate healthcare providers about the community.

“You have to educate the community to access care, to use it regularly and to know what problems you are at risk for,” Larson said. “The other part of our mission is we’ve got to eliminate homophobia in healthcare. We’ve got to make sure that doctors, nurses, and the staff that provide healthcare create a safe, clinical environment that is LGBT friendly.”

He must also breathe new life into an office that has been moribund for several years. In a 45-minute interview with Gay City News, Larson displayed posters and pamphlets on a number of health initiatives his office would be promoting. None were produced by the Office of Gay and Lesbian Health.

Larson defended his staff saying they had helped organize last year’s Community Planning Leadership Summit on AIDS in New York City and they were without “a captain” for a long time.

“They didn’t have a director for over a year-and-a-half,” Larson said. “They kept busy.”

While Larson’s office will be responding to meth and other health problems he also wants to see positive messages.

“We want to have ad campaigns that celebrate our health and promote positive images,” he said. “We also want an ad campaign that says the city cares about you, the city wants you to have a long and healthy life.”

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