New preliminary data from the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Centre in the US indicates that gay men who use crystal meth are five times more likely to be HIV positive than those who don’t.

Of 5,319 gay men tested for HIV or other STDs at the Centre in 2005, 18% reported they had used crystal meth at least once and 9% had used the drug in the previous 12 months. In 2006 the percentage of gay men who reported using crystal meth at least once had increased to 25% and the percentage of those who had used it in the last year had increased to 13% (of 6,360 people tested).

Even more alarming: The 2006 preliminary data indicates that gay men who used meth within the previous 12 months were five times more likely to test positive for HIV than those who did not.

Youth Centre client Michael, kicked out of his Sacramento home for being gay and now living on the streets of Los Angeles, has battled for months to kick what became a nearly instantaneous addiction. He isn’t yet HIV-positive and by expanding its crystal meth recovery services the Centre hopes to help him, and those like him, beat their addiction before it’s too late.

“I thought, ‘I’m living on the streets. There’s nothing better to do. Let me just try it,’” Michael says of using meth. “So I ended up trying it, and I ended up getting hooked on it. I started going crazy, like I wanted it all the time.”

A new meth recovery support group launched by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Centre specifically for young people – along with a second meth group designed for adult gay men—aims to help meth users like Michael find a support system among their peers and take their first steps toward recovery.

“One of the keys to successfully helping both youths and adults who are abusing meth is to have services available to them early in their use or addiction,” says Mike Rizzo, Manager of the Centre’s Crystal Meth Recovery Services. “Many users will at some point begin to question if they have a problem with the drug, and having services ready for them at that moment is vital in helping them move from contemplation to action.”

Rizzo should know. Recently recruited to the Centre, he’s a gay recovering meth addict himself and now an expert in meth treatment and prevention. Before joining the Centre, Rizzo worked for three and a half years as director of the residential/outpatient program at Alternatives, a Silver Lake-based rehabilitation and treatment facility for members of the GLBT community struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. He also has worked as an intern and counsellor at Our House, which assists HIV-positive individuals recovering from substance abuse.

In addition to his work with the Centre’s meth support groups, Rizzo works one-on-one with clients to refer them to other Centre services – like individual counselling, the Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinic for HIV medical care, HIV/STD testing and treatment, and others – as well as to outside treatment facilities if necessary.

Fighting meth use in the GLBT community requires a multi-pronged approach, says Rizzo, because the reasons people use the drug vary greatly between demographic groups.

For gay and bisexual men, meth can temporarily alleviate some of the issues gay men may struggle with, such as internalized homophobia, low self-esteem, lack of acceptance by society and low coping skills, explains Rizzo. And because it also lowers inhibitions and enhances sexual pleasure, experimental use often evolves into long-term addiction – and into repeating patterns of risky sex.

Homeless youth, however, tend to use meth for very different reasons, most directly linked to the fact that they are living on the streets, says Ismael Morales, a health educator at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Centre’s Jeff Griffith Youth Centre for homeless and at-risk GLBT youth ages 15-24.

“On the streets of Los Angeles there are about 5,000-6,000 homeless GLBT youth and for them, the drug is not recreational at all – it’s about survival,” Morales says. “They use it to stay awake at night for safety. They use crystal to separate themselves from the reality of living on the streets. And they end up addicted to it.”

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