Meth is more potent and plentiful than ever in Florida – and men who have sex with men are poised to take the hardest hit

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Meth is more potent and plentiful than ever in Florida – and men who have sex with men are poised to take the hardest hit
Design by Melissa McHenry

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Meth – often referred to as "ice," "speed," "crank," "crystal" or "Tina" – isn't a new high for Floridians. The drug saw its heyday in the 2000s, when most supplies were "cooked" in fly-by-night labs set up in homes and abandoned buildings.

At the time, a common ingredient was pseudoephedrine, the decongestant found in cold medicines like Sudafed. To combat the problem, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act in 2005, which regulated over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine-containing products, limited sales to 7.5 grams per customer every 30 days and required pharmacies to track sales.

Mexico cracked down, too, but the cartels there stayed ahead of the game. They used the chemical phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P – a method popularized among 1970s American biker gangs (and on the TV show Breaking Bad). Today, most American meth comes from Mexico, cooked up in the cartels' "superlabs," says a spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

According to Customs and Border Protection, over the past five years, the amount of meth seized at the border – almost always in trucks at legal ports of entry – has tripled, even as other drug seizures have declined or risen more modestly.

After the meth makes it into the U.S., it's trafficked to Florida by dealers driving from the West Coast along Interstate 10 or shipped across the country using the United States Postal Service. This supply chain, coupled with increasing demand, has led to an almost factory-like assembly line.

What's more, the meth is more potent than ever, and it's cheap, too.

"The cartels have refined it so that it's incredibly pure and addictive," Fawcett says. "It's cheaper, it's stronger, and it's everywhere. It comes in liquid form from Mexico, as tequila and windshield wiper fluid and all kinds of fluids, and then it's re-crystallized and basically distributed by FedEx once it gets into the country."

From there, the drug finds its way to people like Matt.

"If you were to take a hit right now, you wouldn't be able to sleep for 12 hours, and your body doesn't feel like it needs that," he says. "Literally, the days turn into nights, and it'll be day two, and oh, I haven't had anything to drink, I haven't had anything to eat. You just feel like you can keep going."

At the peak of his addiction, Matt says, he once stayed awake for 12 days.

After all, that was the point of the drug's design – an extreme hyper-energized sensation.

According to the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, the earliest form of meth was amphetamine, first synthesized by the Romanian chemist Lazar Edeleanu at the University of Berlin in 1887. What resembles today's methamphetamine wouldn't come about until several years later, when the Japanese pharmacologist Nagai Nagayoshi chemically altered the drug to be more potent.

During the Second World War, to manage so-called "battle fatigue," the U.S., Japan and Germany began distributing meth to their armies. (Japanese kamikaze pilots were pumped full of the drug prior to their suicide missions.)

In the '60s, meth spread across the country, from rural areas to urban. It wasn't until 1971 that Congress classified meth as a Schedule II drug under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act because of its high potential for abuse.

"Meth works with the system of the brain called the reward circuitry, or the dopamine system," Fawcett says. "If we have a good meal, if we feel loved and belonging, and most of all, if we have an orgasm, we get shots of dopamine that reward the behavior and make us want to do it again."

But meth hijacks that system. It's neurotoxic, which means it gradually destroys the brain's ability to distribute dopamine. In other words, it rewires your system so that you'll feel depressed, impulsive or manic without it.

It's not like that at first, says Sam Graper, a recovering addict who's been clean for 10 years and is the community relations manager at the Orlando Immunology Center. At first, he says, you feel invincible.

"You can be as confident as you want to be. You can be outgoing. You can have sex for hours. All those things are the way it is in the beginning," Graper says. "And then, once you continue going with it, I think it always ends the same for people – in this horrible place of isolation, degradation, dereliction, lost jobs, all those things."

That's where Matt found himself during his days-long benders.

"I'd see the shadow people, things on the floor that weren't there – it was mental," Matt says. "Looking out the windows, thinking someone's out to get you, just extreme paranoia to the point where I would sit in the corner and not talk for hours and hours and hours."

Matt is 29 years old, white. His eyes are deep blue, his hair dirty-blonde. He wears it neatly cropped, high and tight. His beard is trimmed. He's slim but not gaunt, handsome. He's also very insecure, and he knows it.

Like many addicts, Matt says he's always searched for happiness. Growing up, his single mom worked two jobs to make ends meet; he and his sister had to raise themselves. At 13, he found Xanax and booze. By 21, he used cocaine regularly and he became involved with gay party culture.

Though he'd been offered it countless times before, he was 26 the first time he tried meth.

"How I got into it was one night I was using cocaine and I was on Grindr, and I said I wanted to party," Matt says. "Which, for me, that meant cocaine. For them, that meant [meth]. I was out of my stuff, so I was kind of just like, OK."

Matt's genesis story isn't uncommon in the community of men who have sex with men, or MSM. LGBTQ-focused dating apps have tried to suppress drug abuse in recent years, even banning certain terms such as "PNP" ("party and play") and the capitalization of certain letters in members' bios, such as the capital letter T ("Tina.")

In Fawcett's telling, Grindr and Scruff have become essential accessories for the MSM community as a whole.

"Those really facilitate the distribution and connection with sex and drugs, because it's so easy to find somebody who wants to PNP, or party," Fawcett says. "There's an overload of this chronic, low-grade dopamine simulation by looking at the app, much like pornography. ... Dating, which is so much slower and ultimately much more rewarding, and really getting a relationship with somebody over time, is a whole different experience. But it doesn't have the kick that a bump of meth does, and so it pales by comparison."

Scruff, a dating app for gay and bisexual men that claims more than 12 million members, declined to comment for this story. So did Grindr, which claims more than 10 million members.

"People [on dating apps] would have things like 'parTy boy' in their bio," Matt says, which means they're either selling meth or want to use it.

There's an entire community of meth-using MSMs, he adds. On his phone, he logs into the video conference app Zoom, where there are chat rooms with names like "HIV + Bareback PnP," and finds a video of a young man sitting upright naked on a bed, holding his penis. The room is dimly lit aside from a neon light in the background.

Matt says that's an indication he's using.

"Because everything's so sensitive when you're using, you turn the lights down and those colored lights just help everything blend together," Matt says. "So now you can isolate yourself in your room and still feel connected."

And this escalation of meth use in the local MSM community is more pronounced than people think. "That's the thing," he says. "Nobody knows about it."

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