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Faces of meth

How three men are fighting the little white powder


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A police officer sped into the parking lot. The maintenance man had called the cops. Paul didn't run. He couldn't. He was too fucked up. He told the cop he was homeless, was living hotel to hotel. The cop frisked him. No weapons. The cop asked to look in Paul's black bag.

"Go ahead," he replied.

The cop found a sliver spoon with white-colored residue. The cop tested the residue. Positive for meth. He handcuffed Paul and placed him in the back of the cop car.

The yellow bag was found under the nearby picnic table. It had a paper tag with Paul's name attached. Inside were a straw, several Q-tips, a scale, unused baggies and a black and silver case. Inside the case, the cop found two medium-sized bags with hard crystal. The bags weighed in at 6.5 grams.


After he interned at Duke University in 1995, Brian's first hands-on experience was treating addicts at North Carolina's High Point Regional Hospital's Behavioral Health Center. He moved his way up to heading the impaired professionals program, treating doctors and lawyers unable to kick their habits.He loved the work but burned out.

"I really enjoyed the teaching end more than the supervision," he says. "I really wanted to move on and do some other things."

So he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, one of the nation's finest counseling programs. He saw a bit of meth addiction at UNC-G in the mid-'90s. But it was nothing compared to what he saw in Atlanta when he took a position as an assistant professor of counseling at Georgia State University.

At Georgia State, Brian was introduced to Kirk Elifson. Kirk is a sociologist there. He's been studying drug patterns in Atlanta for 27 years. He and his wife, Claire Sterk, a public health professor at Emory - both leading drug researchers in Atlanta - took him under their wing. Through his work with the couple, Brian was named the Atlanta representative for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the nation's pre-eminent drug abuse and addiction research organization. As a representative, he attends meetings twice a year throughout the country to report on Atlanta's drug trends to leading drug and public health officials.

Meth had already hit the West Coast in the early '90s. It gained media attention, particularly in California's gay communities in San Francisco and San Diego. But now it was moving eastward. Brian discovered that the amount of Mexican ice had skyrocketed in Georgia. Part of I-20 runs along the U.S. border, and 90 percent of the meth smuggled into the city is from Mexico.

Brian was intrigued. Meth broke most socioeconomic barriers. It crossed age brackets and sexual orientations. Most people entering treatment centers for meth were 35 and older. Some had never touched a drug in their life, but were somehow caught in the hands of meth. What was it about this drug?

Brian applied for a competitive, $100,000 federal grant from the National Institutes of Health in late 2004. His application was denied because the study outlined too many objectives for the two-year grant. But he didn't let the lost funding stop him from his goal: to interview recovering addicts - those who were abstaining from meth for two weeks or two years - and find out its draw.

Each interview would be anonymous and be held in a church in Midtown. He'd record the interview on tape and split the interviewees into two categories: heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals. He would develop categories of questions: "Influences to Start," "Positive and Negative Effects," "Stopping Usage," "Relapse," "Advice." In February, he conducted his first interview.

By May, Brian had interviewed approximately 18 men and women. He'd started to notice similarities between gay and straight users. They talked about sex, a lot. He knew meth impacted the system that controls pleasure mechanisms. It increased sex drive, made people less anxious, and lowered their ability to make sound decisions. So addicts engaged in sex, lots of sex and longer sex, many times without condoms.

He found several major differences, too. If users were heterosexual, they tended to be white, less educated and have lower rates of full-time employment. The gay and bisexual users, by comparison, had large incomes, enabling them to support their habits. Heterosexuals had started using drugs early on, around age 13. They tended to inject meth more than gay users did. Homosexuals and bisexuals began the drug in their late 20s and early 30s, and smoking meth was their delivery of choice.


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