Huge Turnout for Crystal Forum

Speakers say AIDS groups, government failing on HIV prevention among users

Roughly 700 people turned out for a town meeting on crystal meth use and the role the drug is playing in a rising number of HIV infections among gay men in New York City.

“Nobody is going to take care of us,” said Harvey Fierstein, the Broadway performer and moderator of “The Crystal Meth-HIV Connection,” the second in a series of town meetings on HIV and gay men. “The government is not going to take care of us. We have to take care of ourselves.”

The organizers of the February 8 event, Dan Carlson and Bruce Kellerhouse, opened the event by thanking the meeting sponsors and pointedly criticizing AIDS and government groups that serve gay men.

“When government and non-government agencies to whom gay men have entrusted their lives fail to respond effectively to rising rates of HIV infection and crystal meth addiction they place gay men’s lives in jeopardy,” said Kellerhouse, a psychologist. “As private citizens, Dan and I find the complacency on the part of our leaders troubling and unacceptable. The truth about crystal meth and HIV needs to be told and it is the responsibility of our service organizations to do so.”

The panel of four speakers included Peter Staley, a longtime AIDS activist who has spent $5,000 of his own money to place anti-crystal ads on Verizon phone booths along Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. Staley is also recovering from crystal addiction.

The ads are the most visible response to meth use among gay men to date in the city. Verizon said that an anonymous benefactor has since funded the printing of more ads that it will place, at no charge, on 20 additional phone booths in Chelsea. Staley credited Verizon with that effort at the town meeting. Like the evening’s organizers, Staley took a shot at AIDS groups and local government.

“During my addiction and my continuing struggle to stay clean, I’ve witnessed a heartbreaking amount of destruction and despair caused by crystal meth,” he said. “One thing I wasn’t seeing was any outcry about what this drug is doing to our community.”

Staley has said that the ads are intended to give crystal the “reputation it deserves” and he repeated that message during the town meeting.

“We need more than a few phone booth ads or a couple of articles in the gay press to fight against the glamorized reputation of a drug that’s destroying too many good lives in our community,” he said. “We need to speak honestly and loudly about the real dangers of crystal meth.”

Staley was followed by Trevor P., also a recovering crystal addict, who told about his experience using meth, how it eventually led him to unsafe sex, and, finally, to becoming infected with HIV. Trevor, 27, said that by the end of 2002 he found himself high on crystal in a sex club “where bareback sex was the norm.”

After a sex partner in that club ejaculated inside him, Trevor objected. “What are you doing?” he said. “I’m negative.”

The man responded, “Well, I’m positive.”

Trevor believes he was infected during that encounter. When he returned to that club some months later and told another man there that he was positive the man responded, “Welcome to the club.”

Dr. Steven Tierney, director of HIV prevention at San Francisco’s health department, followed Trevor and discussed how that city is spending roughly $400,000 that the city allocated to address crystal use among gay men there.

Tierney said the money went to drug treatment efforts, public campaigns, and a web site called tweeker.org that is meant to aid users in quitting or easing some of the negative side effects of the drug.

The final panelist, Dr. Steven Lee, a psychiatrist who has studied club drugs for seven years, said that when he first became affiliated with the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in 1999, one out of ten psychiatric clients reported a problem with crystal. That number has swelled to one out of three now.

“It was quite shocking to see that much of a change,” Lee said. He also noted that currently at Callen-Lorde, one out of three men who test HIV-positive say they have used crystal.

The evening’s second hour was taken up with audience comments and questions. A dominant theme was whether or not harm reduction efforts can be applied to crystal use.

Harm reduction assumes that, while users may not be ready to quit, they can take steps to reduce a drug’s harmful effects. Harm reduction’s greatest success has been distributing unused needles to injecting drug users to halt the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases.

Staley has called for demonizing crystal and in his opening remarks he said that might “offend the sensitivities of some harm reduction advocates.”

Some of those advocates spoke up, saying that demonizing crystal necessarily means attacking crystal users.

Donald Grove, a longtime proponent of harm reduction, said the message would ultimately be, “There is a group of people out there, the ones who continue to use, who don’t matter… Let’s be real about the role that demonization and stigmatization play.”

The concerted attention on HIV, crystal, and gay men does appear to be producing benefits.

Frank J. Oldham, the citywide coordinator for AIDS policy, read a statement from Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner, saying the city recognized that crystal was a “growing and serious” problem.

Staley, Dr. Mathilde Krim, board chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and Ana Oliveira, executive director at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), met with senior health department officials on February 2 to talk about crystal.

GMHC has launched a task force to study crystal and HIV prevention. It is expected to report on its work in 60 days.

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