• By Bob LaMendola, Sun Sentinel,
[19 April 2005]
ALTHOUGH SMALL, the first study of crystal methamphetamine use among gay men in South Florida showed that the drug can spark high-risk sex and may have contributed to a jump in HIV/AIDS in recent years.
Researchers interviewed 15 unidentified crystal meth users, who said the drug lowers inhibitions and fosters artificial feelings of intimacy. The men described going to weekend-long parties that included unprotected sex among multiple partners, sometimes with anonymous mates found on the internet. The findings reflect meth studies done in other parts of the country.
Steven P. Kurtz, a University of Delaware researcher in Coral Gables who wrote the March 2005 study, said he was not trying to quantify the extent of crystal meth use, but show how it can lead to HIV/AIDS infections. He cautioned that the study was small and does not reflect the gay community at large.
Also, other experts noted that much of South Florida's increase in HIV/AIDS in the last few years stems from new infections among heterosexual African-Americans, who were not part of the study.
But Kurtz and others said his interviews of meth users ages 33 to 50 in Miami Beach and Wilton Manors clearly shows that the drug plays a big role in rising infections among gay men, especially those who feel ostracised from mainstream society.
"Anecdotally, everyone knows this is going on. This gives us the scientific proof of the hypersexuality that crystal meth can cause," said Kevin Garrity, executive director of the South Beach AIDS Project in Miami Beach.
The study, published in the journal AIDS and Behavior, found that crystal meth, a type of speed that is snorted or injected, arrived here from the West Coast in about 2000. The drug is supplanting ecstasy and other intoxicants as the drug of choice among substance abusers who frequent gay nightclubs, Kurtz said.
"If you're HIV-negative, at the end of it all, you [think], `God, I can't believe I just had sex with 10 men in two days or whatever,'" a mid-30s man told the researchers. "I wonder if I was safe to do that?"
"It does not matter who you are having sex with, near or whatever, as long as they are just as high as you and on the same thing. That becomes your overriding concern," said another recovering user, 38.
Michael Lopez Mata of Fort Lauderdale said he had snorted crystal meth for years, quit for a while but then lost almost everything, including his job as an art dealer, his money and his mate, after a friend talked him into injecting the drug early last year.
Now 33, Lopez, who was not part of the Kurtz study, said he fell deeply into the meth circuit, going to "party and play" events with men he barely knew or met in chat rooms. He said they would go to someone's home and spend the weekend taking speed and having sex.
"I felt lonely, like I lacked a connection with other people," Lopez said. "There are so many men out there doing crystal that it's easy to become a part and to feel welcome."
Few men at the parties used condoms, said Lopez, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1999.
"I no longer cared about having unsafe sex," Lopez said. "I sought out partners who would engage in unsafe sex. I was already infected and I found a whole subculture of guys who were already infected or didn't care if they would get infected."
Lopez kicked the drug in rehab earlier this year and is counseling other users, mainly at a new meth anonymous group that was started two weeks ago by Christopher Lacharite, HIV outreach coordinator at the Compass gay and lesbian center in Palm Beach County.
"Crystal has inundated both Broward and Miami-Dade for a couple [of] years now and it's now migrating up into Palm Beach County," said Lacharite, also a recovering user. "We need to do something." •