Knight Ridder Newspapers
MIAMI - Perched in front of a laptop in his South Beach apartment, Marc Cohen logs into a popular South Florida gay Internet chatroom where men banter in hopes of finding sex partners, drugs or both.
One guy zips into the room with a quick request: ``Hey, anybody know where I can score some Tina?''
Tina is street slang for methamphetamine, specifically the crystal form of a powerful and highly addictive drug that has inflicted a heavy physical and psychological toll, particularly on South Florida gay men.
In fact, three of Cohen's friends have died from side effects of the drug, two of them last year. That's why he grimaces when he reads the chat message. As a gay activist and president of the United Foundation for AIDS, he visits chat rooms regularly to try to cajole people to get tested or get into drug treatment.
In one instance a young man shares that he's interested in attending a support group meeting for addicts but can't because it conflicts with his class schedule.
Not a problem for Cohen. ``I began to add more meetings with you in my heart,'' he types.
Methamphetamine use is proliferating among gay men because it causes a heightened sex drive, stamina and euphoria, according to gay activists and health experts. That makes it particularly appealing to men who participate in the circuit party and club scenes, which features around-the-clock partying.
Last year, Cohen and several health and law enforcement officers formed the South Florida Crystal Meth Task Force, to track the drug's usage and manufacture in the region. Last November, the task force held a workshop in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to alert residents to the drug's dangerous side effects that drew more than 500 people. The group will hold a similar symposium in Miami Beach April 21.
Earlier this month, at a national conference on sexually transmitted diseases, government health experts announced findings in separate new studies that crystal methamphetamine use contributed to a continuing spike in sexually transmitted diseases - including HIV and syphilis - among gay and bisexual men.
A study conducted by the San Francisco health department of more than 1,200 gay men in that city found that more than 17 percent who went to the department's STD clinic between November 2002 and March 2003 had used crystal four weeks or less before their visit. Those men were twice as likely to be HIV positive and nearly five times as likely to have syphilis than nonusers. The users also reported having more sex partners than nonusers.
Methamphetamine is typically brought into Florida from the U.S. West Coast and the Southwest. But to the dismay of local and federal law enforcement officers, increasing amounts are manufactured in home-based labs and are made of a combination of chemicals that can be found in regular products on pharmacy or home improvement store shelves. It is a white, odorless powder that dissolves in water and can be injected or snorted.
The rock-hard crystal form, which is more powerful and lasts longer, can be smoked or snorted. Crystal is viewed as a poor man's form of cocaine, although federal drug agents say that may be changing. Prices vary by region, but crystal costs about $80 to $100 per gram in South Florida.
The price of cocaine and meth are similar in terms of quantity, but meth has longer duration of action,'' said Jim Hall, executive director of Up Front Drug Information Center in South Miami-Dade.That's part of its appeal.''
Mildly popular in the 1970s but overshadowed by cocaine and crack, methamphetamine resurfaced primarily on the West Coast about 16 years ago.
Now the drug, also known as Tina, crank, ice and speed, has cut across the country to become a growing national nuisance, with a profile of users that varies by region: Housewives in Southern California and the Midwest, college students in the Northeast and families in the South.
South Beach clubgoers often use it with other drugs, especially Ecstasy, GHB and Viagra. Dan Carlson, a New York gay activist who visits South Florida frequently, said visitors bring crystal from out of state, or know where to find it once they hit the clubs.
``It makes you feel everything is alright and reinforces the pleasure part of your brain that says go back for more,'' said Carlson, recalling a visit during the Winter Party three years ago where he and his lover partied for nearly five days straight.
Afterward, however, came the crash that filled him with paranoia and hopelessness.
I was suicidal,'' he said.No one told me this stuff will make you so addictive that nothing else will matter in your life and makes you do things you never thought you would do.''
Dane, an HIV-positive Miami man who has used a smorgasbord of illicit drugs for nearly 20 years, said his 12-year dance with crystal meth took him down faster than any of the others. He doesn't want his last name used because he is in recovery and getting his life together.
During his peak usage, he said he spent up to $400 a day on crystal. ``I felt powerful, like I could do anything,'' Dane said.
But because of crystal, he never held a regular job. He turned tricks and in some instances became a sex object to make money and get more drugs. Safe sex was not on his mind.
``I didn't care what men did to me. I just wanted to get high,'' he said.
Now in his 10th month of recovery, Dane has enrolled at Miami-Dade Wolfson campus, where he studies computer information systems and art animation. ``I'm valuable. I can live without drugs in my system,'' he said.
Health experts point out that chronic usage can cause elevated body temperature, convulsions, episodes of violent behavior, insomnia, paranoia, deep depression and death.
Sara Magnus, addiction specialist at The Village treatment center near downtown Miami, said four men with crystal meth addictions have been admitted since January, equaling the number of patients who came with the same complaint last year. All are HIV positive.
``It affects them financially, mentally and physically. The habit takes over and their health declines. Their life is spinning out of control,'' she said.
Cohen started a campaign last year called Meth Equals Death to spread the word about the dangers of crystal methamphetamines. The campaign includes the chatroom outreach, support groups for crystal users in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and two Web sites that attract people from as far away as Australia.
Cohen spends as many as five hours a day chatting online, hoping to meet men who are receptive to his advice. Sometimes he will counsel a person online for months to gain their trust and hopefully convince them to get tested or seek drug abuse treatment.
In his two years of doing this, he said, most have appreciated his work.
We need to keep people informed in high risk zones,'' Cohen said.We're dedicated to what we're doing.''
(c) 2004, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.