It could be the young man with the jittery leg intently studying his phone at the coffee shop or the older, well-dressed man quickly thumbing through profiles seeking just a few hours of connection. Meth’s easy intoxicating power combined with an epidemic of loneliness and the desire for connection create a perfect storm for the personal, familial and community tragedies we see today.
This is by no means a problem exclusive to men who have sex with men, although it is a serious issue in the gay/bi/transgender community. Just last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data showing the highest rates of drug overdoses ever recorded, driven largely by the opioid fentanyl and methamphetamine. With stronger, cheaper and more destructive meth on the streets, it's easier to find it, to hook up via phone apps and push the envelope of chemsex — combining multiple drugs with sex. This is an epidemic destroying our social fabric and tearing apart families from rural and urban areas.
Meth floods the brain with pleasure-inducing dopamine. It creates a rush of heightened sexual desire. Users often combine it with other drugs to expand the experience, creating potentially lethal complications with the pulmonary system. Meth can also increase psychosis, paranoia and delusions that can become violent.
Here are some things we can do:
Recognize the failure of our drug reform policies. Addressing drug treatment (and mental health for that matter) within the judicial system is the worst possible solution. We need to recognize that this is a mental health crisis and treat it as such. This is not a law enforcement issue; although certainly law enforcement must be part of the solution.
Educate frontline professionals on addressing methamphetamines. Drugs often used with meth such as GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) create respiratory failure after an overdose and require specific medical intervention — training often lacking within different jurisdictions.
Help people understand the culture in which this behavior occurs. Individuals who use meth don’t start out attempting to behave badly. In nearly all cases they are seeking to numb emotional pain, including searching for sexual and social interactions to soothe loneliness. They're seeing connection, they're seeking community, they're seeking friendship. As Johann Hari says in his brilliant Ted Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY9DcIMGxMs), “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection.” It is incumbent on us, including the LGBT community, to step forward and create opportunities for healthy connection.
Help each person understand one’s value. During the pandemic, my local community saw a rash of overdose deaths among men who had been in recovery for years. These were men who were in their 50s and, although they had recovery, when they walked down the street other gay men didn't notice them. They felt less sexual, less attractive, invisible. That is where meth’s ability to numb feelings of unworthiness while boosting sexual confidence began to flourish. People suffer quietly.
Increase harm reduction efforts including needle exchange. This intervention is a proven method to increase safety and reduce rates of HIV and Hep C. It saves lives. This includes providing treatment information, as well as support information for families.
Increase the capacity of healthcare providers (including mental health professionals) to deal with methamphetamine recovery. Many addiction specialists often feel that meth is so difficult to treat that they want nothing to do with it.
Meth can be treated. People do recover. But they need the trained support of professionals and safe spaces where they can do the long and hard work of recovery. Let’s move past stigma and remove willful blindness that allows us to ignore this problem. This is ultimately not an issue of crime and punishment.
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