This Month in HIV: Crystal Methamphetamine and HIV/AIDS
Can you tell me how you got involved with co-sponsoring the first conference on methamphetamine, and what you expected from having this conference?
Luciano Colonna: Well, what happened is the Harm Reduction Project has offices in Salt Lake City, Denver and Washington, D.C., and we provide a lot of direct services to marginalized populations. We've always provided services to the MSM community, as we provide a lot of services for individuals who are high risk for HIV. What we saw was that there were a lot of people abusing methamphetamine. At the time we saw a lot of people smoking it, and it made sense to us that they were going to start to inject it. We assumed that we were going to see a lot of people switch from smoking to injecting. That's clearly the case now. We are seeing more and more people injecting, not just in the United States, but globally.
So we decided that it would be a good idea to put on a national conference, and we put out some feelers to some of our sister organizations. Needless to say, the response that we received was great. We immediately got a lot of national organizations to sign on, including the national Harm Reduction Coalition and amfAR. People just really wanted to speak.
And what was their interest? What did they think could be accomplished by having this conference? And has anything been accomplished?
Luciano Colonna: First of all, one of the things everyone wanted to accomplish was to not let the issue of methamphetamine be taken into the hands of "the feds," [laughs] the federal government and become another tool of the war on drugs. We wanted it to be handled with the tools of harm reduction. We could maybe reach out to drug users, reach out to the MSM community.
For example, one of the first things that happened, was we tried to reach out to a lot of groups. We tried to involve the drug-using community, the MSM community. We received a lot of grants from a lot of different partners, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They gave us money to bring in minority social workers from all over the country to attend the conference, but a representative from Indiana named Mark Souder found out that we had gay-MSM-driven plenaries and break-out sessions about gay men's health and he didn't like that. So he made a big stink in the House of Representatives and tried to get our funding cut. That eventually went to the Senate. The secretary of housing and human services got involved and it ended up in the White House. My organization, the Harm Reduction Project -- I'm their executive director -- we had a bunch of our funding pulled. A bill was introduced. They tried to cut -- it was ridiculous. [Click here to read an article about the conference and the ensuing controversy that Colonna, together with Allan Clear, wrote about in 2005.]
This was all about the conference?
Luciano Colonna: Yes, it was all about the conference. It was all about remarks I made. It was all about us having gay speakers at the conference. We live in a really sick society. They prohibited speakers from the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] from speaking at our conference, although some of them came on their own time.
Luciano Colonna: We had the conference, just so you know, anyway. We actually had two conferences. We had the second national conference. We did this because we wanted to get this information out there, and we wanted to make sure that the information wasn't going to be driven just by the federal government.
What was so amazing to me when I looked over the conference program was that it was just so detailed. It described meth's effect on pregnant women, meth's effect on Native Americans. It was very comprehensive in terms of the number of people it affects and it just seemed to be endless.
Luciano Colonna: Yes. And we also invited law enforcement. We invited health departments, and we did that at the second one as well because we wanted to get as much information as possible out there. It looks like we are going to have a third one in the United States, and we've been invited to have an international one as well because this is a really big problem in Asia and Africa. It's a big problem everywhere.
As Phil said, people use this drug to work long hours. Truck drivers have used this drug -- amphetamines are not a new problem. People have been using this drug for a very, very long time. We used to give this drug to servicemen to fly long missions.
Meaning the government or the military?
Luciano Colonna: Yes, there was just a Freedom of Information Act file [opened]. We are still giving this drug to our pilots who fly missions to Afghanistan, because we don't have bases close enough.
How is crystal meth then different from amphetamine?
Luciano Colonna: Well, crystal meth is a derivative of amphetamine. You fool around with some molecules and you get a stronger drug. It's a drug that's now injected or smoked. Amphetamines are still prescribed. It's a generic version of a drug that's given to kids now called Adderall. We give Adderall, which is amphetamine or dextroamphetamine, to kids with Attention Deficit Disorder.Who makes crystal meth?
Luciano Colonna: Crystal meth is made in laboratories by people who are called cooks. [Laughs.] Some people call them chemists.
In the United States or in Mexico?
Luciano Colonna: It's still made in the United States, but a lot of it's been pushed to Mexico, since the ban on ingredients from cold medicines.
Luciano Colonna: To make it?
Or to buy it.
Luciano Colonna: To buy methamphetamine, it's very cheap to buy the drug.
How cheap is cheap?
Luciano Colonna: Well, to get you high?
Yes, how much would I have to spend to get high for one day?
Luciano Colonna: I think it's 5, 10 bucks.
Mark, do you remember?
Mark S. King: Oh, much more than that! [Laughs.]
Luciano Colonna: Oh, to get high for a whole day? I don't know. Mark, how high do you have to be for a whole day?
Mark S. King: Generally speaking the price on the street is about $50 for a quarter gram.
Luciano Colonna: OK, $50.
Phil Hendricks: Really?
Mark S. King: That is something I would inject all at once. That was one injection when I was doing that.
And how long?
Mark S. King: Over the course of a weekend, I would inject four, five, six times.
So you need a lot of money.
Luciano Colonna: You're getting pretty high though, aren't you?
Mark S. King: Well, remember that this was over the course of years, so I was building up resistance over several years. This was a drug that I began snorting a line of and being perfectly content with that and dancing all night.
It was funny hearing you talking about people using it for other purposes, to work or to clean or to be creative. I remember that. I remember that back in the early days of my addiction. I hear stories about that from hundreds of addicts who are trying to recover, having the early days when the drug actually did work, when it accomplished what you were hoping for, either great sex or productive work or what have you. And there are those among us who are not satisfied and are addictive by nature. It's a slippery slope. The days of using it to just work longer passed me by a long, long time ago. It became strictly a drug to use because I wanted to get high and exercise that high in ways that had nothing to do with work. But that's the trip that I took, and that people who turned out to be heavily addicted took.
"There is a study from the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center that just came out showing that 25 percent of their new HIV infections were amongst people who had used meth in the last 12 months."
-- Phil Hendricks
I just wanted to say something else about what Luciano was mentioning about alcohol. That's certainly true -- I can imagine that alcohol use has got to be more prevalent with accessibility alone. What's been interesting to me to observe has been the number of people who are crystal meth addicts who don't fit the profile of people who may have otherwise been alcoholics, for instance, or that alcohol led them to crystal meth somehow. The drugs seem to have an allure that is marketed differently, a different attraction.
I've been in many meetings and support groups for people who are alcoholics and/or people who are on crystal meth, and the profile of those two people seems very different to me. That's just my observation. Crystal meth is certainly attractive among gay men. That's only my experience. As they have mentioned, around the country, and around the world, there are many, many types of people using it. But certainly among gay men and those most at risk for HIV infection, it seems to be very attractive to those who just happen to be at highest risk for HIV because they are sexually active and they are using the drug for that purpose.
Phil Hendricks: So, just to clarify my point: When it comes to abuse, alcohol is by far the most abused drug. The reason why APLA is involved as an HIV organization is just due to the high sexual risks that meth users tend to engage in. The number of partners goes up, the sexual activities they tend to engage in tend to be more high risk than that of the general population. You can't tie the connection between meth and HIV much more strongly here in Los Angeles than any other co-factor that may be involved. There is a study from the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center that just came out showing that 25 percent of their new HIV infections were amongst people who had used meth in the last 12 months. [Click here to read more about the study on meth use and HIV transmission.] When you take that and you minimize it by what percentage of the gay community that is actually using meth, it just shows that there is a huge correlation between meth use and HIV infection.
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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
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