Health Summit Mounts Crystal Strategy

Conference of medical, advocacy groups seeks unified approach for gay community

A daylong conference on treating crystal meth addiction drew staff from 45 social service and health organizations to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on February 9.

“This conference is one step closer towards our goal of helping,” said Errol A. Chin-Loy, senior vice president of health services at Housing Works, at the start of the conference. “Most of us have seen friends, loved ones, colleagues, succumb to this epidemic.”

In his opening remarks, Chin-Loy told the roughly 150 attendees that the goal of the event was to develop “effective intervention that combines education, support, and medical treatment.”

The Community Center and the AIDS service organization sponsored the conference. The additional morning speakers presented an overview of meth use and a range treatment options for the drug.

Dr. Perry N. Halkitis, a psychology professor at New York University and co-director at the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies (CHIBPS), a conference co-sponsor, described the state of meth use in New York City.

“It is a drug that crosses racial lines, ethnic lines, HIV status,” he said.

Meth first appeared in here in the mid-90s with many gay men first using the drug during trips to the West Coast, then purchasing crystal from California dealers, and having it shipped here, according to Halkitis.

“A lot of the men in our studies were introduced to meth on trips to San Francisco and Los Angeles,” he said.

The drug is relatively inexpensive, compared to other amphetamines like cocaine, and gives a long lasting high.

“You get more bang for your buck through a 40 or 60 dollar hit of methamphetamine,” Halkitis said.

Meth has established a solid foothold in the city’s gay male community and its use may be increasing. A study that CHIBPS is conducting with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of gay men who use gyms found that 28 percent of them reported recent crystal use. With just over 100 men enrolled in the study to date, that sample is relatively small and that percentage may yet change.

Dr. Antonio E. Urbina from the St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center described meth’s affect on the body and brain. Crystal causes the release of dopamine in the brain and inhibits dopamine re-uptake, giving users a double dose of that “feel good” neurotransmitter, according to Urbina.

“You get a huge surge of dopamine,” he said.

Chronic use can lead to “major depression,” Urbina said.

In one study, 62 percent of the meth users remained depressed two to five years after they stopped using the drug.

“You are going to damage your brain and it may be something you don’t get back,” Urbina said.

Don McVinney, director of education and training at the Harm Reduction Coalition, another conference co-sponsor, discussed the role that harm reduction can play in helping users lessen some of the consequences of meth use. These can include using less meth, using it less often or injecting with clean needles.

“Because we are reducing harm we are actually promoting health,” McVinney said. “We meet clients where they are and not where we would like them to be.”

McVinney also told the crowd to deliver a positive message to meth users. They should be told that “lots of people who have problems with meth are able to quit” versus “you’ve probably already ruined your brain,” according to McVinney.

“The message should not be once you’ve tried it, that’s it,” McVinney said.

Dr. Barbara E. Warren, the director of organizational development, planning and research at the Community Center, described that facility’s counseling process for drug users. She described a “decisional balance exercise” in which the benefits and costs of drug use are weighed.

Yves-Michel Fontaine, a staffer with the Substance Use Counseling and Education at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), another co-sponsor, did an actual “decisional balance exercise” with the crowd in which they explored the pros and cons of meth use.

The morning session ended with a speech from the public information chairman from Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA), a 12 step group for recovering meth users.

“The thing that I really want to get across to you today is that it is possible to recover from crystal meth addiction,” said the chairman, who remained anonymous in accord with 12-step tradition, said.

He said he used crystal for 13 years and during the final 14 months of his addiction he was a daily user. He has not used in two-and-a-half years. He noted the increase in New York City CMA meetings from none a few years ago to 24 each week, with each meeting drawing 30 to 40 people and some larger meetings drawing up to 100 people.

The afternoon sessions were taken up with developing and practicing counseling skills.

Additional conference sponsors were the Harlem Directors Group, MOMS Pharmacy, the Institute for Research Education and Training in Addictions, the Northeast Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Abbott Laboratories.

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