Stepping Up the Anti-Crystal Push

Former addicts work in tandem with activists nationwide to warn of drug’s dire risks

A 38-year-old former crystal meth addict recalled dining out on New Year’s of 2001 and struggling to perform the simple math needed to divide the bill for the meal.

A week earlier he had been climbing the walls as he spent Christmas with his family and a snowstorm kept him from returning to his Manhattan apartment where his crystal and his pipe were waiting.

After a four-year run with crystal and GHB, including the final 15 months as a daily user, he has not used either drug for 14 months. He and three other former addicts, all gay men, are organizing an effort to get the word out about crystal.

“There’s a lot more to crystal than getting HIV,” said the former addict who asked that his name not be used. “It’s really destructive of people’s live… There are a lot of negatives associated with it.”

Chris Starling, one of the four gay men, likens their efforts to the early years of the AIDS epidemic when gay groups were battling the spread of HIV with no help from government.

“This to me is much like the AIDS epidemic,” said the 37-year-old Starling. “If we don’t do it, it ain’t going to get done… The drug is really killing our community. It is destroying our community.”

Starling began using crystal in 1995. He has struggled to stop using, putting together a few months at a time off the drug only to start using again. He now has eight months clean. Starling has watched crystal’s popularity grow in New York City over nine years.

“It started out everyone was snorting and if you smoked it you were an addict,” he said. “Then everyone was smoking it and if you shot it you were an addict… The last time I went out everyone was shooting.”

The men and a group of 30 to 40 volunteers will distribute posters, palm cards, and flyers that feature a disturbing image of a young man’s face that is rotting away accompanied by the text “meth = death.”

The document lists all of the side effects that come with crystal use and it also has information on where people who are concerned about their meth use can get help.

We want to get across that there are a lot of dangers associated with it, but we’re also trying to get across that there’s a lot of help,” the former addict said.

They plan on placing 1,500 posters in businesses across the city and handing out some 10,000 palm cards with some going to men as they enter the Black Party starting on March 20.

“Next weekend is a big circuit party weekend,” the former addict said. “There are lots of private parties. We’re going to try to get into the parties.”

They will do more postering the following week when some crystal users will be feeling the effects of any binge they might have been on during the Black Party weekend.

“We’re also going to do another round of posters the week after when everyone is crashing,” Starling said.

The grisly image and the funding for the campaign come from the Miami-based United Foundation for AIDS, which has been backing similar efforts around the country.

“We developed a campaign called Meth Equals Death,” said Marc Cohen, the foundation’s president. “It’s a very aggressive awareness campaign.”

The foundation also uses an image of a rotting female face and an African-American face and it has funded campaigns in Miami, Portland, Houston, Orlando, and Tampa. A group in San Francisco has asked to use the image though it will pay for its own posters and a Washington, DC organization may soon launch an anti-crystal effort there.

“It has become such a serious issue in our community that we wanted to collaborate,” Cohen said. “Our target audience is traveling quite a bit to different parties, different cities. The more we can do together will provide maximum exposure, provide consistent messages, and maximize the dollars that we spend.”

Cohen praised the former addicts in New York City for their work in countering the drug’s pull here.

“I think that what Chris and his team are doing in New York is extremely courageous,” he said.

For the former addicts, the campaign is as personal as it is about aiding their community. Starling recalled that when he sought help for his crystal addiction three years ago there were few resources available.

Both of the New York men interviewed are HIV-positive and their crystal use interfered with their ability to care for themselves. The former addict who remained anonymous told Gay City News that when he was using he did things he swore he would never do.

“Your sense of what seems reasonable goes out the window,” he said. “I was just so disgusted with my life. You keep crossing lines.”

In the waning days of his crystal use, he found himself at a sex party for eight hours. Three other men were injecting the drug while he kept smoking.

“I was never into sex parties,” he said. “Then I started going to sex parties at the end… I went to family functions high. I volunteer somewhere. I went to that high.”

Then he and a group of friends pooled their cash to buy a large amount of crystal. The former addict contemplated having it delivered to his home. Had he been caught, that could have resulted in serious time in prison.

“Taking delivery of a large amount, that’s boom,” he said.

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