• By Diane Bennett
FINGERS TAPPING, plucking at pant legs, fists clenching and unclenching - by the time crystal meth users find themselves in Bob Martel's Three Bridges Clinic office, it's on the late side. "They're coming in psychotic, mostly referrals from St. Paul's," says the alcohol and drug counselor, speaking to a small gathering of healthcare workers at a November 2003 open discussion on the drug. "Delusions and paranoia, tinfoil on their heads. And these were high-functioning people."
While some users never become addicted, Martel's seen professionals lose it all - jobs, homes, relationships. "The onset of addiction is very quick. It can become chronic dependency within two weeks." Chemically-
altered ephedrine (a decongestant) is cooked up in labs all over Vancouver, including the West End, using chemicals easily picked up at any hardware store. And while cooking it up requires some skill and presents the danger of explosion, finding the recipe is as easy as a quick search online.
With the first use the brain's chemistry is altered. Soon, compulsive urges lead to lifestyle changes. Users may stop seeing family and friends and withdraw from their usual activities. Towards the end, users can't honour commitments to stop. Jobs are lost, relationships fail, self-esteem plummets, depression sets in. Then comes paranoia and psychosis - irreversible damage to the brain. "It produces violence in many people. I've had people drive their cars into buildings, thinking they had to avoid capture."
It's cheaper than cocaine by a long shot. Ten bucks buys a point compared to $40 for cocaine. The high is long-lasting - eight hours compared to the typical 30-minute cocaine high. And it's accessible. In Vancouver, the intersection at Bute and Davie Streets has become known as "Crystal Corners".
"Meth is the drug du jour," Martel says, noting use has spiked in the last four to five years, particularly among gay men. When smoked, snorted, injected, or inserted in the rectum, the drug quickly travels to the pleasure centre of the brain. A feeling of well-being, energy and power results. Inhibitions fall away. Eventually, however, use of the drug leads to impotence and other physical damage related to prolonged and rough sexual activity.
"It's used [by gay men] as a high to sexual activity...meth and high-risk sex go hand in hand," Martel says. And as the rate of meth use among gay men rises, so does HIV infection. In BC, discussions with meth users revealed that 38% had unprotected sex. Of those aware of their HIV+ status, 62% had unprotected sex. "Most of the gay men I see who are crystal meth users are HIV+."
Because meth boosts the reproduction of the virus while weakening the immune system, users are more vulnerable to infection. Coupled with the increased likelihood of rough, unprotected sex, the danger of HIV infection jumps. Worse, treatment in Vancouver is basically non-existent, says Martel. "We need more open-ended access to counseling; it's too structured here." •
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• Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service: 604-660-9382