Crystal meth use among gay men has spiked since 2005, according to preliminary data collected by a Los Angeles nonprofit agency, with those using the drug in the last year five times more likely to test positive for HIV.
Of the 6,360 gay men the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center tested for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases last year, one in four reported using the drug at least once.
That's a jump from 2005, when 18% of 5,300 gay men surveyed said they'd tried the drug, which triggers a euphoric high.
A popular party drug, crystal methamphetamine also lowers sexual inhibitions, increases arousal and helps users escape internalized homophobia or other social stigmas, said Mike Rizzo, the center's manager of crystal meth recovery services.
"With crystal meth, it's sort of the perfect gay drug," Rizzo said.
Crystal meth use is also common among homeless youth, allowing individuals to stay awake through the night and suppressing hunger, said Rizzo, himself a recovering crystal meth addict.
Meth also is closely linked with HIV transmission, Rizzo said, as the drug increases risky sexual behavior and some people use it to cope with the trauma of HIV infection. Of newly infected HIV patients, 43% reported some meth use, Rizzo said.
"There's no doubt in the minds of most experts that meth contributes not only to the transmission of HIV, but other STDs," said Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County public health director.
The city of West Hollywood scheduled a news conference this morning to highlight the increased meth use among gays and unveil public service announcements to combat meth use.
City officials also are sponsoring a town hall forum tonight to discuss the need for expanded treatment options.
"There literally needs to be more beds," said David Giugni, the city's social service supervisor.
Roughly one of every 10 men who have sex with men reported using meth within a six-month period, according to a 2005 study cited by the L.A. County Department of Public Health in a report this week. That frequency is about 20 times greater than in the general population, Fielding said.
"Every time we get new data about increased use of crystal and its relation to HIV, we're surprised -- but we're not shocked," said Darrel Cummings, chief of staff at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center.
Even as the gay community has struggled with the AIDS epidemic, it now faces "a perfect storm of a drug that is contributing in some ways to the ongoing spread of HIV," Cummings said.
Rather than being distributed in bars or clubs, men often connect online to use meth and have sex, said West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran. "I am hoping that we are at the top of the bell curve in terms of crystal meth use in the gay community," he said.
Crystal meth has become the No. 1 drug used by individuals seeking treatment in county-funded programs, Fielding said. Although meth use has risen across demographic groups, abuse soared among women, particularly young Latinas, and Filipinos between 2001 and 2005, Fielding said.
The county has funded three new HIV- and meth-prevention programs addressing the disease and drug use, specifically aimed at men who have sex with men, Fielding said.
"Crystal has infiltrated every avenue of society," said Kathy Watt, executive director of Van Ness Recovery House in Hollywood. "Crystal meth is a drug that takes people down really, really fast."