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In January 2004, he launched a controversial ad campaign in New York City to raise awareness of the connection between crystal meth use and HIV infection in the gay community. In the mid-80s, after being diagnosed with AIDS-related complex, Peter Staley left his job as a bond trader in New York to work as a full-time HIV/AIDS activist. He became a founding member of ACT UP in 1987 and has served on the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research since 1991. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 9, 2005.

Meth has become popular with gay men, and started becoming popular in the late 1990s. It started in a group of men who were used to using party drugs like ecstasy, cocaine and others. And it was very successfully marketed by dealers and just friends telling friends that "Listen, if you try this drug, you will have the best sex you've ever had in your life."

That is a very powerful marketing message, not just to gay men, but to men in general. ... And gay men who partied started picking that drug up instead of ecstasy and cocaine and other party drugs. Unfortunately, they didn't know how risky the drug was when they first started trying it. ...

Whether you have a history of drug addiction or not has no bearing on whether you will get addicted to this drug. It is Russian roulette, pure and simple.

The first gay men to pick up crystal meth, all the studies have shown, are 35 to 45 years old. Most of them are HIV positive, which is very interesting. There's my demographic. I'm a recovering meth addict; I picked it up when I was 40 years old. What's interesting about my demographic is that we're the survivors of the AIDS crisis. We deal with survivor guilt. After all of our friends died in the '80s and early '90s, protease inhibitors came out, and there was no mourning about what we had all been through. We just moved on.

What happened to AIDS? What happened to what we had gone through, the survivors? Where was our period of mourning, of dealing with that immense loss, of processing it? And here we were, all of a sudden having to deal with the fact that we're going to live, and we're dealing with midlife crises at the same time, because we're turning 40.

I mean, we have to be up front about the fact that this is a heavily damaged group of men. We've got issues. We're human, you know? A lot of people who pick up drugs have issues. They do it for various reasons, where they don't necessarily have a very good sense of self worth. We have major issues with self worth as a community, and until we overcome those underlying issues, we will continue to have problems with drug addictions.

... The gay name for crystal meth is Tina. We like to give our party drugs drag names for some reason. And Tina is her name, and Tina's a bitch. ...

Meth's reputation for "If you try this, you'll have the best sex of your life," unfortunately, there's quite a bit of truth to it, and I think that's one of the reasons it's been very hard for many communities to shake.

... The first sex you begin to have on meth is some of the most intense you've ever had in your life, and you want to go back there, and you can't shake those memories from your head. And that's one of the reasons it's so addictive. The reasons that it leads to sex like this -- and I don't think most people understand this -- it's not because it's this amazing aphrodisiac, although it has those characteristics; it's because it lowers inhibitions. ... You do things that are usually just kept in your wildest dreams for your whole life, sexual fantasies that you may think of, but would never act on. And when crystal meth opens that world for you, it really changes people, and they become addicted to that. ...

Once you've been bitten by the crystal meth sex bug and have tasted that fruit, sober sex loses all allure, and you just have no interest in it. You can't imagine having sex without crystal meth, which is very, very sad and very hard for the recovering addict, because obviously anybody who's trying to get off meth wants at some point in their life to be a sexual being. But they can't. Their brain just simply can't imagine having sex without the drug. They're so intertwined. You get to a point where ... you want to have sex, and you relapse. You go back to the drug in order to have sex. This is one of the reasons getting off the drug for many gay men is very, very hard, because it basically means you have to be sexually abstinent for a long period of time.

And part of the reason you have to be [abstinent] is that, of course, [meth has] also destroyed part of the pleasure center of your brain.

Right. ... While meth is flooding your brain with dopamine, it's stimulating those dopamine receptors; it's killing those receptors from the very first time you do it. And they have shown in study after study that the reason you become so addicted to the drug is because when you come down off of it, you get clinically depressed from this lack of dopamine. And the whole way to feel normal again, or to feel as though you're part of the living, is to smoke some more meth. So it's a vicious circle....

And it's not only mood and depression, but it is short-term memory that's severely affected. Every recovering meth addict I know bemoans the fact that they don't have the memory skills that they used to. It's a lot of sad damage that's occurring from the drug. ...

When we saw the advent of AIDS in the '80s, the gay community changed its behaviors in a dramatic way by adopting safe-sex practices. And we saw the transmission of HIV go from very high levels -- where up to 50 percent of gay men in most cities were positive by the mid-80s -- to where no transmission was occurring because of everybody adopting these safe-sex practices. ... We had this golden opportunity to really completely halt HIV transmission in the gay community. ...

But then things started to change. Crystal meth came on the scene. ... You do things when you're on meth that you would never do sober. You drop your guard. Condoms -- forget about it. You step in front of the bus, as it were. And HIV transmission started going up again.

Fortunately, we were dealing with a much smaller base of positive men, so we haven't seen the explosion that we've seen in the '80s. But I think we've missed the opportunity that we could have had during these last 10 years of virtually halting the transmission of HIV in the gay community. In New York, we're seeing about 1,000 gay men every year become infected in the last few years, and that's just unacceptable. It's completely unacceptable. It's tragic, and it's almost entirely because of crystal meth. ...

As somebody in the gay community who has spoken out against crystal meth, I have taken a considerable amount of heat from within my community for talking about it openly, talking about it in the press, talking about it here and now. This is the perfect issue for the conservative right in this country to beat up the gay community about. They have always labeled us as drug-addicted, disease-ridden perverts, and crystal meth is the perfect weapon for them to point to.

Unfortunately, the facts won't hold up for them. Crystal meth is a problem, and we are, as a community, talking about it ... and trying to face it. But only a small minority of gay men have ever even tried crystal meth. To broad stroke the whole gay community with this drug is homophobic.

... Most of the party drugs that gay men have enjoyed over the years generally have not destroyed the lives of a large minority of gay men in urban centers in the U.S., and now internationally. And what we are seeing is people with white-collar jobs, the boyfriend of 10 to 15 years, the two dogs, the gorgeous Manhattan condo, losing everything in six months. And we're seeing it again and again and again. ... It's happening in all income scales. It's happening regardless of where you start. It's destroying lives. ...

I'm not anti-drug, but this is a different beast, and that's why there are a bunch of us out there screaming about this, because meth destroys lives again and again. And you don't know when you first try this drug whether you're going to be the one that gets trapped or not. Certainly there are people that try it, doesn't mean much to them, [they] go on, no ill effects. But a lot of people get trapped, and you have no idea before you start the first time what your path is going to be.

Whether you have a history of drug addiction or not has no bearing on whether you will get addicted to this drug. It is Russian roulette, pure and simple. And for a large portion of those who try it, their lives get destroyed, and they have a lifetime of trying to stay off the drug. Even if they get clean, it's a constant struggle. I struggle every day with this, every day.

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posted feb. 14, 2006

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