A contingent of bar owners convened at Sidetrack, 3349 N. Halsted, March 10 for an illuminating forum about crystal methamphetamine, a drug whose usage has reached epidemic proportions in Chicago's gay community. Not only did attendees learn the basics about the drug ( which has a variety of street names, including Tina, zip, and crank ) , but they also discussed issues such as what to do when confronted with a meth-related situation.
Art Johnston, one of the owners of Sidetrack, moderated the discussion. He said he was pleased to be part of a working group, including the 23rd District police department and various service providers, that is doing something to combat meth use, the most frightening situation he said that he has witnessed in his 30 years in the business.
Johnston also made a special point of spotlighting local and online resources. They include Haymarket Center ( www.hcenter.org; ( 312 ) 226-7984 ) ; the Chicago Department of Public Health, ( 312 ) 747-9823; Center on Halsted ( www.centeronhalsted.org; ( 773 ) 472-6469 ) ; Howard Brown Health Center ( www.howardbrown.org; ( 773 ) 388-8905 ) ; VALEO at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, ( 800 ) 888-0560; and West Side Central Intake, ( 312 ) 850-9411. Web-related resources: ClubDrugs.org ( www.clubdrugs.org ) , Crystal Recovery ( www.crystalrecovery.com ) , Crystal Meth Anonymous ( www.crystalmeth.org ) .
Johnston also praised people for attending; the service providers for being available; and the media for being very responsible.
Gary Yamashiroya, the 23rd District police commander, reiterated that the collaborative effort to organize the forum was necessary to help bar owners. He said that officers are seeing an increase in dealing in the area and want to work with bar owners to aid not only the business leaders but the community in general.
Kevin Osten, the clinical director and primary therapist of VALEO, an in- and out-patient mental health and addiction center that offers crystal meth treatment options for the LGBT community, gave a powerful and comprehensive presentation that covered the fundamentals regarding the drug.
Osten started off with a relevant distinction. No illicit drug gets a person high; rather, it is the way the drug tricks the brain into flooding the body with chemicals it already produces. He also talked about the ingredients used in manufacturing meth and mentioned a little-known danger: acute lead poisoning. Because lead acetate is often used to make the drug, manufacturing mistakes could result in meth being contaminated with lead and a user's brain being damaged.
Photos showed, very effectively, long-term meth users with a variety of bad physical traits. Harmful side effects include rotten teeth, paranoia, tremors, insomnia, open sores, physical aggression, and the hollowing of facial features.
So why take meth? According to Osten, 'the chemical rush of meth is estimated to be about 600 times greater than our natural 'feel-good' state. Also, it inhibits the appetite, which keeps the body fat down and the body looking good. In addition, it keeps energy up from 18-24 hours to several days. It also increases sphincter relaxation for anal sex; I've heard that meth turns the strictest top into the most ravenous bottom, which releases inhibitions. Lastly, people have intense orgasms and gain self-confidence.'
Osten also talked about signs of a meth user. He mentioned that users talk a great deal, seem to possess boundless energy, and have a sense of power that is out of character. Eyes can flit from side to side, and a user will multitask for many hours while not really accomplishing anything. Addicts may also talk with imaginary people, which Osten said is part of the drug-induced psychosis connected with meth. Users are also easily agitated and may resort to constantly scratching at their open sores. Chunks of hair may also be missing from an addict's head. Paranoia is a major symptom; a user may be afraid that someone may be taking a picture of him or her. A meth abuser may also start congregating with people he or she would not have associated with before.
The phenomenon of tweaking, the user's high, was also discussed. According to Osten, tweaking involves a fixation on a single activity, from sex to cleaning. 'This is again where we see the really powerful connection between crystal meth and sex,' Osten said. 'People engage in sex for really long periods and are unable to pull themselves away.'
What is it like after the high? Apparently it is a very dangerous time. Osten pointed out that the user probably has not slept in 3-15 days, is irritable, and will crave more crystal—but no high will match the first, he said, causing frustration and sometimes violence. If the user is also using alcohol ( a depressant ) , negative feelings will be intensified.
What should someone do if he or she witnesses a tweaker who is coming down? First, Osten said, people should stay some distance away; the tweaker may perceive the witness as a threat and respond violently. Also, a bystander should use a soft, low, steady voice; the point is to not intensify anything. Slower movements are also helpful. Signs that someone is in a post-high state include irritability, depression, insomnia, heart palpitations, shaking, and a return of appetite. 'Crystal meth interrupts our survival needs, so eating, drinking, sleeping, and even sexual contact are not cued in the brain. That's why people don't do certain things, like eat, when they're on a high,' he stated. More serious withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, confusion, depression, suicidal thoughts, and severe paranoia. Here, Osten made an important point: 'Crystal meth withdrawal in itself is not fatal except when it is paired with suicidal thoughts.' Osten advised the attendees to make sure that they get those people to someplace safe, like a hospital. He warned against friends watching the suicidal addict themselves, simply because the user be very convincing that he is fine when he is actually not.
Osten also talked about signs of overdosing, which can also be lethal. Among the danger signals are: extremely high fever, shaking, chills, numbness, loss of vision, confusion, dizziness, balance/coordination problems, and severe headaches. Fatal poisoning from meth overdose can end in convulsions and a coma.
Felonies and policies
Lieutenant Robert Stasch of the 23rd District Tactical Unit also addressed the audience. 'Our success in fighting this drug is not because of the police but because of the ability of the people in the community to come together,' he stressed. 'This drug is the crack cocaine of the 21st century. Our biggest worry is that the drug will not only destroy the community but the city itself. If street gangs, for instance, figure out how to manufacture this drug, violence will result.'
Stasch pointed out what concerns the police in particular. ' [ It ] is the clandestine labs. Lakeview is a very congested area and we're concerned that both methods used to manufacture the drug are highly dangerous to the citizenry. For example, [ one whiff ] of phosphine gas [ which has a strong, fishy odor ] , can cause tremendous damage to a person and can kill you. The second method uses red phosphorus, which is extremely flammable and explosive.' If you have any suspicion of any type of noxious odor, especially ammonia, call 911 or the 23rd District police, ( 312 ) 744-8320.
He also discussed the two forms of crystal meth. 'One is methamphetamine hydrochloride, which looks like powdered cocaine. It can be snorted but is usually injected—and thank God we don't see a lot of injections in this neighborhood because there would be an even bigger fear regarding the transmission of AIDS, because of dirty needles. The other form is methamphetamine ice, which looks like rock salt. It can be smoked and the high can last you 24-36 hours ... the truly frightening thing is the same rock can be put back into a pipe and be smoked 3-4 more times.'
Stasch also pointed out other facts: 'It's not a localized drug; it's expanding throughout Illinois [ and throughout the Midwest ] . Also, the mere possession of meth, even the residue, is a Class I felony in Illinois and can get you a minimum of four years in the penitentiary. Possessing 6-10 grams can get you six years, minimum.' Stasch also talked about major trafficking organizations.
Lora Branch, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health's STD/HIV Prevention & Care Program, talked about how the office handled substance abuse problems. 'We had dialogues with the community that resulted in programs that target gay and bisexual men on the South and West Sides of Chicago. These things have happened because our community demanded it.'
Branch went on to say that ' [ c ] rystal meth use is a public health epidemic and we're doing things to combat it on the community, policy, and legislative levels.' However, she also talked about what the attendees and service providers could do. 'First, be concerned about yourself; evaluate your own behavior and see where it fits in the continuum. Second, enforce what you've learned today. That can be as simple as putting up signs that state bars are meth-free zones. Also, communication is extremely important; if you'd like to work with us, we'd appreciate it.'
She also talked about the link between meth use and HIV diagnoses. 'Based on preliminary research results that we have, perhaps 25-30 percent of new HIV cases in the city are crystal meth-related. This is very significant.'
Branch also talked about a report that will be released this week at a press conference. 'It's a plan to address the larger issue of substance abuse in our community. It looks at communication, strategy, research, advocacy, treatment, training, and programs—and how we have a responsibility in each area.'
Service providers and community leaders who attended the event included Osten and Joe Camper, of VALEO; Braden Berkey, Howard Brown Health Center; Rick Bejlovec, Test Positive Aware Network; Carolyn Schneider, Center on Halsted; Vernita Gray, Cook County States Attorney's Office, Liaison for Lesbian and Gay Issues; Jim Pickett, AIDS Foundation of Chicago; and Bill Greaves, Mayor Daley's GLBT liaison.
An illuminating Q&A
The question-and-answer session covered everything from meth-related basics to eye-opening esoteric issues.
Gray asked if meth is smoked in combination with other drugs. Stasch responded that it is usually taken alone, although some addicts have used GHB, Ecstasy, and Viagra with meth. Gray also inquired about a connection between meth and syphilis; Branch replied that there is a connection. Lastly, Gray mentioned a neglected group of users: lesbians. She said that a growing number of gay women are using the drug.
Pickett pointed out that data should be used correctly; in making his point, he noted that a sentence in the event's program saying that almost half of the new AIDS cases were connected to meth was wrong. He also mentioned that, while he sees the value in putting up signs discouraging meth use, more should be done; he said that people should be aware of resources and have messages that 'help people at all levels along the continuum' and that reflect compassion.
Asked why attention is just now being focused on meth when it has been around for years, Stasch replied that 'a lot of the country's major drug organizations have now realized that they can make a lot of money. Everything is cyclical; one time heroin was big on the street and then another time, crack cocaine was big. I can take $45, buy items from Home Depot and Walgreens, and manufacture enough meth to make $8,000-$10,000.'
Berkey then released a figure that stunned everyone. 'The recovery rate for crystal meth addiction is 6 percent,' he said. 'That's even lower than [ the rate for ] heroin, which is 10 percent.'
Regarding an inquiry about what bar staff should do when confronted with a meth-related situation, Yamashiroya said something that few may have wanted to hear. 'There's a possibility that your employees are using, dealing, or helping others in your business,' he said. 'You should make sure that the employee gets help. Do everything you can.' Stasch added that sometimes employees do condone drug usage or look the other way. He reminded the owners that if an investigation shows that an employee is allowing drug dealing, they could lose their licenses and be criminally prosecuted.
'The first thing is that knowledge is power; know about this drug so it can be reported to [ the proper people ] ,' Stasch stressed. 'Activity occurs predominantly in bathrooms; if you see a lot of activity occurring around restrooms, the [ drug ] connection could be there. Also, it's common for people to communicate via cell phones to set up drugs. These things are more likely to happen in crowded areas; there's less chance that [ the dealers and users ] will be encountered by the police.'
Stasch went on to say that if someone does report meth use, there are options. 'Management can deal with it on their own if they reveal the users' identity to security staff. You have the right to deny someone admission if you feel that person might cause a problem; if they refuse to leave, you have the right to call 911 and sign a complaint for criminal trespassing. In addition to that, you can notify the police department at either 911 or call the district desk and ask for the tactical unit officer. Someone will come over and talk to you about the individual; then the officer will remove the individual surreptitiously from your place. The last thing that you want, as a business owner, is somebody who's going to take down your business because of something stupid like selling drugs. Also, we take anonymous complaints.'
Johnston, a self-proclaimed 'hard-ass' about the subject of crystal meth, revealed an item that he said a healthcare professional told him: meth is tailor-made for minorities, including the gay community. 'If you have any amount of self-loathing, if you've been attacked because you're gay, or if you've ever lost a job because of who you are ... one hit and it's all gone.'