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Crystal meth linked to rising STI rates

Ottawa Educators focus on harm reduction strategies

GET REAL. Barry Deeprose recalls a time when people thought that HIV might not come to Ottawa.

The recent rise in sexually transmitted infection rates among gay men in Canada and the US has alarmed many health and wellness workers in the queer community.

Several diseases, such as gonorrhea, syphilis and even HIV, have experienced recent spikes in their infection rates.

And while most health professionals agree that there are several factors behind the rise, one commonality among many new infections – particularly among men who have recently tested positive for HIV – is crystal meth.

Several US studies have linked the amphetamine to 30 to 40 percent of new HIV infections among gay men. A Jan 19 article in the Los Angeles Times cites a recent report by San Francisco’s Stop AIDS Project, which found one-fifth of gay and bisexual men surveyed had used crystal meth in the last six months, while a third of those who had recently tested positive for HIV had used it in the previous six months.

According to Lynne Belle-Isle of the Canadian AIDS Society – who has extensively researched the drug and its use among gay men – due to the links made between crystal meth use and significant increases in HIV infection rates in many US cities, crystal meth has been identified as “an emerging issue” within the Canadian AIDS community.

“We started looking into how much of an issue is this in Canada. And we discovered that it has emerged in Vancouver, Toronto and a little bit in Montreal,” says Belle-Isle. “So we are trying to be proactive and to get as much information out to the communities to hopefully prevent this from happening in Canada.”

Belle-Isle says recent reports indicate increasing numbers of gay men in Canadian cities are using crystal meth (also called Tina) while engaging in high-risk sexual behaviours. And although several other party drugs are much more widely used within Canada’s gay community than crystal meth, the fact that it has begun to show up in the bathhouses and circuit parties in many parts of the country is a concern.

“And this is something that has been reported to me from people who go to these places, this isn’t just us fear-mongering,” says Belle-Isle of the awareness work CAS has begun regarding the drug. “We’re totally not anti-fun. In fact, we’re all about harm reduction when it comes to any kind of drug use: Be careful, and get the information you need to be able to make good choices, safe choices.”

And while it is a reality that many men safely meld sex, drugs and rock and roll as “weekend warriors,” crystal meth can hardly be considered a “safe” drug.

Created by cooking up several highly toxic and volatile substances, batches often contain ether, battery acid, insecticides, solvents and lye – in addition to its active ingredient, ephedrine, usually obtained from over-the-counter cold medicines.

But the fact that the drug is cheap, usually selling for between $10-15 a pop, and gives an intense euphoria that can last anywhere from to eight to 10 hours at a time, makes it a highly appealing choice for those who want to get the most bang for their buck.

Unfortunately, the drug is also highly addictive, some say on a crack-like level, and tends to send users into a psychotic state far deeper and more frequently than most other street drugs.

Equally worrying, says Belle-Isle, are the sexual rituals that have developed around the drug, which often rears its ugly head in marathon multi-partner barebacking sessions.

“It does have a specific, stimulating effect on the sex drive. And it also seems to make people feel very invincible, fearless, that they can conquer the world, and all these things come into play,” says Belle-Isle.

During these sessions, users are often unable to sustain an erection, a phenomenon which has come to be known as “Tina dick.” To counter this, the drug is often coupled with Viagra.

“The reason we’re becoming more vocal about crystal meth is really to get people to think about their health in general – how far are you willing to go to put your health at risk?” says Belle-Isle.

For local health and wellness officials, however, the more immediate question is, has it become a problem in Ottawa?

Barry Deeprose, co-chair of the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative, says crystal meth use among gay men in Ottawa has been difficult to gauge.

“It really is an enigma in this city – we have talked about it at Gay Men’s Wellness, but we just have not been able to get hard evidence,” says Deeprose. “But I don’t know, I can remember in the early ’80s, when we thought that HIV would somehow not come to Ottawa. I really think it’s a false reassurance that it is not here. I just can’t imagine that it won’t happen in Ottawa.”

Jacques Neron, supervisor of outreach services for Ottawa’s Sexual Health Centre, says while it appears that crystal meth use among Ottawa’s gay community is marginal, it may be due to the fact that many local men choose to party and play in Montreal.

“It is important for us as a public health agency to look into any factor contributing to the increasing rate of STIs or HIV. We are concerned about it in that sense,” says Neron. “But we also know that [between] Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, that there is a lot of traffic, and a lot of the raves are happening in Toronto and Montreal, so we do feel that there is also some information that needs to be going out.”

But according to Sylvain Duguay, the intervention coordinator at Action Sero Zero in Montreal, “crystal meth use is still marginal in Montreal’s gay community.

“In fact, it is marginal everywhere in Montreal: street youth don’t seem to use it, while it is common among them in other Canadian cities,” says Duguay. “We think it’s simply a question of market – bikers may not be ready to sell it. [Although] we sometimes hear that people [have] brought crystal in to Montreal from other cities.”

After visiting several US cities recently, however, Deeprose is wary of the drug and the effect it could soon have on Ottawa’s local gay community.

“If it is happening in San Francisco, you can be sure it is happening in Vancouver. I think that there tends to be a bit of lag, as there was with HIV, but that lag should not be read as the fact that it is not coming here,” says Deeprose. “I think that it is nothing more than a delay. A couple of hundred miles are not going to protect us.”