The distance between New York and New Haven, a mere 80 miles, may seem like a long way to some. But when it comes to the spread of drug use, it may not be far enough.
Scientists have started to link the use of crystal methamphetamine to the spread of HIV and AIDS, particularly in African American and Hispanic gay males, The New York Times reported last week. But while this pattern can be seen in a growing number of cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Des Moines, it has been slow to reach New Haven.
Dr. Merrill Singer of the Hartford-based Hispanic Health Council said he is just beginning to see methamphetamine come into gay clubs in his city.
“I think the spread of meth into Connecticut is a story, but we are at the beginning of the story,” he said.
But Singer said that based on the rapid patterns in other parts of the country, increased use of methamphetamines in New Haven’s minority communities could occur much more quickly than anticipated.
Dietra Hawkins, a research psychologist with the Yale School of Medicine’s Program on Recovery and Community Health, said the link between methamphetamine and HIV is a frightening combination, but a focus on other at-rest groups has kept New Haven from paying much attention to the issue. Still, she said it is important for the city to be aware that this new problem could pose a serious threat in the near future.
“We’re still in the process of engaging [African American and Hispanic women] in the New Haven community,” she said. “There is always that possibility that this is going to become a much larger issue.”
But Epidemiology and Public Health professor Robert Heimer said crystal meth is not an imminent threat in New Haven nor throughout most of the state of Connecticut.
“Let’s stop creating scary drug epidemics where there is no evidence that they exist,” Heimer said. “There are locations where methamphetamine is very problematic, but turning these into yet another law enforcement excuse to ’round up the usual suspects’ in minority communities is covertly racist and needs to be stopped.”
Heimer said that in New Haven, methamphetamines are still most popular among white males, and that the link between the drug’s use and HIV might be due to a phenomenon called “sero-sorting,” in which HIV-positive individuals seek others with the disease for unsafe sex.
Still, some experts said it would be imprudent to dismiss meth-related concerns so quickly.
Singer cited the small size of the drug market in Connecticut’s cities as a major reason for the spread of crystal meth use to the state’s populations, but said this, too, could change quickly.
“The slow movement of meth into Connecticut is probably a consequence of which groups are big in the illicit drug market,” he said.
But Heimer said that even in larger cities, the rising rates of sexually transmitted HIV among young black and Hispanic men are a result of homophobia in their communities, not the use of crystal meth.
Heimer said he thinks these rates will continue to rise unless the government reevaluates current law enforcement strategies to focus on preventing drug abuse rather than simply making illicit substances harder to obtain. For example, he said, making it more difficult to get drugs at pharmacies simply encourages the rise of an organized and active black market.
Regardless of the scale of crystal methamphetamines’ threat to HIV patients in New Haven, Hawkins said it is important to be aware of the drugs’ dangers.
“We need to be concerned and paying attention to what is happening in some of the bigger cities,” she said. “We need to watch how they’re progressing and see what they’re doing to deal with it and what we need to do here.”
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