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Living with crystal meth

Former addict volunteers time to help others

For Brian Finch, crystal meth was part of a mid-life crisis. It helped him escape from the day-to-day realities of living with HIV, energized his love life and made him feel sexy.

All his friends were taking it. Although he watched some of them spend exorbitant amounts of money on the drug and lose their jobs when their habits started to affect their ability to work, he continued doing crystal from the late 1990s up until 2003.

“I wasn’t spending tons of money and I was maintaining a manageable life. So I didn’t think I had problem,” he says. “The problem was, it was making me more and more sick.”

His adherence to his meds became sporadic. Crystal wasn’t the only drug in his party regimen. He also took GHB and ecstasy.

“I literally thought I was going to end up dead or in jail. I overdosed twice. That wasn’t even enough to get me to stop,” he says. “I had to cut all my ties with everybody and stay home alone because everyone I know was doing it.”

Now off party drugs, Finch volunteers as the Ontario representative for the Canadian Treatment Action Council (CTAC). Last month he attended the First National Conference On Methamphetamine, HIV And Hepatitis in Salt Lake City, Utah on behalf of CTAC.

The two-day conference brought together 900 law enforcement agents, scientists, outreach workers, treatment specialists and social marketers. The conference was organized by Salt Lake City’s Harm Reduction Project and was the first of its kind.

The event opened with a keynote address by Patricia Case, assistant professor in Harvard Medical School’s School Of Social Medicine, who gave a history of methamphetamine and challenged the prevailing notion that its use is epidemic is sweeping North America. She argued that meth is just the latest trend in North American society’s historical love affair with stimulants.

One of the key topics discussed at the conference was strategies for anti-crystal campaigns. Compared with the US, Finch says Canadian drug policy and awareness campaigns tend to be more pragmatic, non-judgmental and open-ended. A lot of the anti-crystal campaigns south of the border focus on “Just Say No”-style messages such as the blunt “Buy crystal, get HIV free!” campaign produced by Aidsmeds.com in New York City (for more on Aidsmeds.com turn to page 14).

A hard-line abstinence-only message is prevalent in the US, especially in Republican-dominated Utah where the focus is on criminalization. Members of Congress, the US Senate and media attacked the conference as a taking a soft approach and promoting a pro-legalization agenda.

In a letter to the US Department Of Health And Human Services, one of the major sponsors of the conference, US Republican Congressman Mark Souder condemned the conference’s harm reduction approach, arguing that it undermines US federal policies on drugs.

“That administration officials from your department are consulting with harm-reduction advocates … and sponsoring conferences controlled by the harm-reduction network completely undermines the work of the president, the Congress and the men and women who work in law enforcement across the nation who are trying desperately to fight the meth epidemic,” Souder wrote, according to the Washington Times.

Salt Lake City’s mayor Rocky Anderson, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and its policies, defended the conference during an address. He stressed that more money is needed for treatment and called the “Just Say No” approach a “dismal failure.”

“The mayor really put himself out there,” says Nick Boyce, who attended the conference on behalf of the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT). “In the political climate he’s in, I have a lot of respect for him. It gave me a sense of hope.”

Finch admits the overwhelming amount of information at the conference initially prompted him to think the hard-line approach was the right one.

“As a former user, my first reaction was, ‘We need to have a clampdown and we really need to stigmatize this,'” he says. “And as I walked away I realized that’s not going to work.”

Going clean and cutting ties with his party lifestyle worked for Finch, but he points out that may not work for everyone. He says that strong peer-to-peer support alongside nonjudgmental campaigns and treatment will ultimately help gay and bisexual men make healthy choices.

Once the addiction is beaten, Finch says, the original feelings of depression, loneliness and anxiety linger, posing a new challenge: facing your feelings without turning back to drugs.

“You really have to learn to have sex all over again,” he says. “After not doing crystal, sex seems dull and boring. Why bother?”

Along with the chemical effects of drugs like crystal, outreach workers at organizations like CTAC and ACT say that social attitudes specific to the queer community play a part in men’s decisions to have unprotected sex, thereby increasing the risk of HIV transmission.

Boyce, ACT’s gay men’s harm reduction coordinator, says ACT intends to launch a crystal awareness campaign at the end of the year that will draw on interviews with crystal users, ex-users and nonusers and target the reasons why some men have unprotected sex when high.

“A lot of men want to connect with other men. It’s a very sexualized culture, we’ve been conditioned to think about sex and to have sex,” says Boyce. “Some men feel guilty about being gay, about having sex. It may not be overt, but subtle reasons play out in your head.”

Although the sense is that gay men use crystal mainly for sex, heterosexual men take it as an energy booster and for partying – sex isn’t in the top three reasons. A trucker might take it to stay awake while on a long haul, while street youth get into because it’s a cheap high. Some people, primarily women, use it to lose weight.

In Utah, a state with 2.2-million citizens, there are 10 crystal anonymous groups. In Toronto, home to 2.48 million people, the city’s only crystal anonymous group met last month at the 519 Community Centre for the first time.