Drug Trends & the LGBTQ Community

Addiction is not a discriminating disease. It affects many across socio-economic barriers, of all ages, and races. It does not care whether the person is tall or short, black or white, gay or straight. For those within the LGBT community, addiction can be especially devastating. Without the proper support from family and friends, addiction can risk death.

For someone who is already vulnerable because of their sexuality, turning to drugs leads them to think it will ease the pain. In the Pittsburgh area, there is a noticeable lack of resources for gays and lesbians who are in active addiction. The social life for many of those within the LGBT community revolves around the bar scene, leading to hooking up and using drugs. Many still feel the guilt and shame of their sexual identity and aim to deaden their feelings turning to drugs and other illicit substances.

Besides the guilt and shame, trauma is a leading contributor to drug abuse. Trauma from sexual, mental, financial, and physical abuse — along with illness, death, and natural disasters — can warp an individual’s sense of being. Even witnessing a traumatic event can cause trauma in the witness. Trauma, if not properly treated, can prevent an individual from processing these memories, causing disruptions in their lives.

Also, within the community, many can also be diagnosed with a mental disorder. Often called dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders, those with addiction often have a mental illness that may or may not be diagnosed or currently treated. Co-occurring disorders often complicates addiction and puts the individual at a higher risk for overdosing. Two examples of co-occurring disorders can include depression coupled with alcoholism or panic disorder and opioid dependence. The complexities of a co-occurring disorder can consist of a higher rate of relapse, homelessness, or HIV and hepatitis C infections.

According to Judy Acheson, MA, NCC, LPC, a therapist at POWER, the drug trends in the Pittsburgh area include K2, MDMA, and alcohol. K2, or synthetic cannabinoids, are mindaltering drugs that can be smoked or inhaled. The drug is also known as herbal or liquid incense and is legally sold in convenience stores or gas stations. In New Hampshire, K2 was linked to 41 overdoses since 2014, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The effects of K2 are similar to those of marijuana including relaxation, altered perception, and elevated mood. The side effects of K2 can include extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, and violent behavior.

MDMA is commonly known as ecstasy. This psychoactive recreational drug increases empathy, euphoria, and heightens sensations. It can be taken orally and can last three to six hours. If abused, MDMA can cause memory problems, paranoia, sleeping difficulties, blurred vision, depression, and fatigue. Other side effects can include insomnia, lethargy, irritability, and impulsiveness. These adverse short-term side effects can last up to a week. Long-term side effects of MDMA can include the brain’s susceptibility to environmental toxins and pathogens.

Alcohol is also a popular trend in the LGBT community. Since it is relatively easier to get than K2 or MDMA, most LGBT youths turn to alcohol first. Short-term side effects of alcohol can include slurred speech, drowsiness, and sleep disruption. Excess alcohol intake can consist of nausea and vomiting, blackouts, coma, and death. The long-term effects of alcohol can include weight gain, high blood pressure, depression, liver damage, cancer, and reduced sexual performance.

Because of the lack of support for LGBT individuals, especially youth, individuals are often mislabeled with other diagnoses. LGBT youth who are unable to express themselves sufficiently often can lead to adjustment issues. The percentage of those who are misdiagnosed can be as high as 20 percent. Currently, in Pittsburgh, there is only one halfway house that accepts trans women while there is no facility that openly admits trans men. Those who do receive treatment often do not receive specialized treatment. This missing pieces of treatment can often lead to an individual relapsing.

If you or someone
you know is in need
of help, contact:

SAMHSA hotline — 800-662-4357
resolve Crisis Services — 888-796-8226
POWER — 412-243.-7535 x 311

Lori Fell, a LCSW therapist, states that for studies on drug abuse, sexual orientation is rarely a question asked. Therefore, determining the prevalence of substance abuse within the LGBT community is difficult. For individuals, this can become a “double closet door.” The struggle to come out coupled with their battle against substance abuse is highly detrimental. Usually, Fell said, it is easier to talk about the substance use than it is to talk about their sexuality.

For lesbians, the drug trend remains alcohol and tobacco use, two substances easier to get than anything else. Lesbians are likely to continue drinking heavily later in life with 30 percent of all lesbians having an alcohol use problem. Also prevalent among lesbians are the use of marijuana and cocaine. Another up-andcoming drug is the use of products like canned air and other popular cleaning products that helps people “dust” their furniture. Called dusters, these products are used much like inhalants that causes the user to get high. Because of a substance called difluoroethane, dusters are more dangerous than whippets, which have a similar effect.

For gay men and men who have sex with men, the drugs of choice remain marijuana, psychedelics (such as LSD and mescaline), hallucinogens (DMT, Ketamine or PCP), stimulants (meth, cocaine or crack cocaine), sedatives, cocaine, barbiturates, MDMA, and amyl nitrates or poppers. Another drug of choice among gay men are prescription drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction. Brandi Gurcak, MS, NCC, CAADC, therapist for Center for Victims says that crystal meth is becoming increasingly popular among gay males. Gurcak stated that addicts are unable to have sex without being under the influence of meth. Not only this, but crystal meth is difficult to quit since the drug is heavily ingrained into the party and hook up scene. Sex and crystal meth seem to go together. Meth, in other parts of the country, is commonly used with other party drugs including poppers. Speedballing, a technique used when an individual mixes sedatives and stimulants, often wreak havoc on a person’s body because of the opposite effects of each type of drug.

Of course, one cannot ignore the opioid epidemic ravaging more and more people each day. While there is no accurate data linking opioid overdoses and the LGBT community, between 100 to 150 people die daily from addiction. With limited research available about substance abuse among the LGBT community, many fear the real numbers of substance abuse is significantly under-reported. It was only in 2015 when the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) started asking about sexual identity and sexual attraction in their National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

While addiction is a devastating and non-discriminatory disease,\ those in the LGBT community are more susceptible to addiction. Coming out of the closet can be hard enough; coupled with substance abuse the effort becomes doubly tricky as most people are more comfortable talking about their substance use problems rather than their sexuality. For lesbians, alcohol remains their primary drug of choice while for gay men and men who have sex with men, stimulants, poppers, and MDMA remain popular.

Cheryl Werber works in the human services field and is a freelance writer. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and her master’s from Carlow University.