Noam Birenbnaum, 43, was 21 when he first tried serious drugs. Upon his army discharge and following his mother’s death, he left his hometown of Beersheba and moved to Tel Aviv where he came out of the closet. “The LGBT community soon introduced me to all sorts of drugs I’d never tried. The move to Tel Aviv hit me hard and I got into a long loop that last for 17 years of intensely using every drug possible.“
From social smoking, Birenbnaum moved onto ongoing drug use – at all hours of the day. “I’d use at home, behind closed doors,” he tells us. “Not a day would go by when I wasn’t under the influence. G, Nancy, weed – the works.”
He tells us that drugs quickly took over his life: “I lost any desire to do anything beyond surviving. My functioning was reduced to nothing beyond work. Even that was only so that I could cover rent and drugs. I’d describe it as a kind of slavery. You do anything you can to get the drugs. It became the only thing that motivated me.“
At some point, after using for many years, he discovered a new drug known as “Tina”, the delicate feminine street name for crystal meth, the addictive stimulant that quickly became a toxic, inseparable part of his life.
In the LGBT community, Tina is rightfully viewed like heroine. Its chemical makeup is extremely addictive. From the moment you start taking it, it’s physically very hard to stop. Your body wants it and needs it.
How is Tina different from other drugs? “Tina locks the door. I’d been taking drugs for years when I started using Tina. I was already in a very bad way. It’s connected to sex. It keeps you awake for days on end and it makes you horny. You’re enslaved to your impulses. When I want Tina, I want sex – and vice versa. If you try and get clean, the trigger to get you back using is enormous. When I was using Tina, the sex was grandiose, euphoric, lasting for days and so immensely pleasurable that when you go back to ordinary, plain sex, without Tina, it looks like death.“
A date rape drug substitute
We’re hearing more and more stories like this. In the safe space created by Ichilov Hospital at last month’s pride week party in Tel Aviv, scores of young revelers were treated after taking Tina. Magen David Adom took a dozen to ER, eight in ICU vans.
Used worldwide since the 90s, the drug is forever claiming more and more victims and has truly become an epidemic, some already calling it the “new AIDS.”
G – GHB/GBL’s rather sketchy popularity has fairly been compounded by terrible public relations as the odorless, tasteless rape drug used by convicted sex offenders. Just before the COVID pandemic hit, Israel’s police force carried out an enforcement operation so extensive that it was unobtainable for several months.
“As soon as the skies closed during the COVID pandemic, G was in crisis. People began looking for alternatives.” Says Guy Yossef, a social worker specializing in addiction who founded and directs the Diagnostic Primary Care Center for Victims of Addiction for the LGBT community.
“Crystal meth, which is a synthetic stimulant manufactured in illegal laboratories, invariably in the West Bank, has become much more easily available. It’s cheaper and easier to prepare. As the skies closed, and with access to G relatively hermetically sealed by the police, G prices soared - a small bottle costing NIS 500 – 2500. Tina stepped in.
Thus one of the world’s oldest and most notorious drugs made its comeback. And it’s as popular as ever in Israel. Prices range from NIS 800-900 per gram. No one really knows how many users there are. No official organization knows. Perhaps no one has bothered to find out.
“Tina isn’t a clubbing drug,” says Dr. Roi Zucker, director of LGBT Medicine at Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv and Clalit Health Services. “It’s not a drug for hugging and having fun. Its essence is sex, at home, home parties. It’s changed the face of the LGBT community and has led to the closure of clubs in big cities such as London. Instead of dancing, you go home and get straight to business. You go on Grinder, where everything is very accessible. Open house orgies where everyone’s with everyone. The stories are mind-boggling.“
“Crystal meth has made great inroads into Israel,” says Guy Yossef. “It’s everywhere. I have patients from Israel’s periphery, Be'er Sheva, Dimona, Haifa. Most say they’ve taken Tina on occasion. For some, it’s their drug of choice.“
“It’s not just people on the margins of society. It’s people you see on television, people with MAs and PhDs. Everyone’s in it.”
Eyal, 33, got clean six months ago after using for a decade. He says there was crystal meth at each and every party he attended over the past two years. “I got into the scene very young – at 22 after finishing my army service,” he tells us. “At 21, I was already smelling coke at parties, then the curse which is upon us called G, the rape drug. Sex became dependent on G. Without it, nothing does it for us. When you start out, it’s great. You buy once a week. You’re soon taking more drugs than you’re drinking alcohol. That’s normally how it goes.“
And if you don’t want to do drugs? “If you don’t – you don’t really belong in the LGBT community. At parties and on Grinder, people ask “Do you do drugs?” If the answer’s no, you just get blocked.”
It’s an admission test “Exactly. 90% of offers on Grinder are sex with drugs. If you’re not into Tina, you’re not part of it. If you don’t smoke – you’re out.“
"When a pipe breaks, it’s like losing a diamond. With a sense of determination, in sweatpants and sunglasses, you leave the house for the kiosk. Everyone else is off to work and you just want to buy your pipe and return to the darkness of your own bedroom”
Eyal goes on to describe drug-induced parties: “These parties start out with three or four people and end up with 15. It always ends up in an orgy. Everyone’s always naked and they’re all taking drugs. At some stage, the guy with the pipe shows up. Anyone with any sense leaves. It’s usually one or two. The rest stay. It’s so tempting.“
Where does Tina come in? “When you’re on Tina, there’s a lot of talking, a lot of touching and it’s very emotional. You can do anything. You’ve no idea who’s entering or leaving the room or who you’re with. You’re not in control, but you’re high. You’re on top of the world. You’re the best, the cleverest, the most successful. You’re doing everyone a favor by gracing them with your presence. It goes on like this for three days – Thursday through Sunday, sometimes longer. When the high’s over, you go home and want to commit suicide. It has a really serious down. A couple of days later, you’re back for a new high. This is how you get addicted.“
What happens if you can’t score your next dose? “You cry. You’re really angry and there’s a lot of crazy stuff. You feel like you’re being chased. The authorities are after you and the state isn’t taking care of you. When a pipe breaks, it’s like losing a diamond. With a sense of determination, in sweatpants and sunglasses, you leave the house for the kiosk. Everyone else is off to work and you just want to buy your pipe and return to the darkness of your own bedroom.”
Relapse almost guaranteed
Recent years have witnessed an increase in worldwide drug consumption. According to a June 2022 UN report, one in every 18 people on the planet, used drugs in that year – a 26% increase since 2010. Only one in eight received any kind of addiction treatment. At 40%, cannabis is the world’s most common drug, followed by opioids at 35%, with 15% of the world’s population having taken amphetamines – Tina’s family of drugs.
Studies show that members of the LGBT community are more likely to take drugs. Almost 30% of the LGBT community compared to 9% of the general population consume drugs at a frequency ranging from binge – short-term, continuous heavy use - through to full-blown addiction.
“These are people who have lived with internalized homophobia their whole lives,” says Dr. Zucker who also serves as director of the Israeli Medical Association’s LGBT Medical Society. “They’ve been living in the closet or in a place of social unacceptance, in a world in which they feel they don’t belong. Some live a lie for years on end and only come out at a later age. As they get into drugs as part of a rebound process, they do it with full force.“
On the other end of the spectrum are the very young people only now discovering sex. This group is at high risk. “A boy of 21 who's only just out of the closet, finds himself in the big city with no one to guide him,“ says Zucker. “Suddenly he goes on Grinder and he’s in a very deceptive candy store. He doesn’t know what’s allowed and what’s forbidden. There’s a whole LGBT jargon that if you don’t know, you don’t know what you’re getting into. A Grinder profile might have ‘parTy’ next to the name. The capital T is Tina, crystal meth.”
“A boy of 21 who doesn’t know the scene can’t distinguish between the various substances. It’s just there for you. You find yourself surrounded by people much older than yourself who may serve as father figures. The first time you go to their house, they’re smoking crystal meth and you don’t know what you’re getting into. At the clinic, I see 22-year-olds ruining their lives with Tina. They didn’t understand what they were doing, and it’s often too late by the time they do.”
“There are two reasons for the recent uptick in the use of crystal meth in Israel in recent years: It’s cheap and the effect is strong and lasts for an extended period,” says Guy Yossef. “This particular drug has caught on with men who have sex with other men as it’s a stimulant that can keep you awake for a long time. The effect lasts 24 to 72 hours. Users can stay awake for two or three days straight. The problem is the crash after use - usually involving intensive sleeping for long periods and extremely severe depression, increasing the chances of reuse, just to make the feeling go away.”
In the LGBT community, the term “ChemSex” refers to sex under the influence of drugs and involves three major kinds of drugs: Mephedrone, crystal meth (Tina) and G (Gina), all aphrodisiacs that help you stay awake for protracted periods of time. Taking these drugs, frequently dangerously combined, you can have sex for days on end, while feeling very self-confident and with low exposure to pain.
“The essence of some very specific drugs is sexual,” says Dr. Zucker. The main drugs are “mephedrone and G, regarded as a rape drug in the straight world. Along the way, people might also take other drugs such as ketamine. The zenith is crystal meth. You reach the point that you can’t enjoy sex without it.”
Is it marginal? “It would be nice to think that it only affects a certain sector of society, but everyone’s into it: doctors, lawyers, techies, CEOs of big companies. It’s a form of escape. But what starts out as weekend fun, often creeps into everyday life and becomes a matter of routine.”
'Crystal meth damages almost every organ in the body'
Crystal meth was being used long before it became so widespread: During the second world war, SS soldiers and the German army were given it to keep them high functioning for long periods on the battlefield. It was especially popular among German air force pilots.
An American intelligence report from the time, that came to light a decade ago, claims that Hitler himself used crystal meth: The report claimed that, in his last days in the bunker before his suicide, he was treated with injections that included crystal meth to help him stay alert. It was later used in Vietnam on soldiers, who then brought the demand for the drug home to the United States.
“Most of the ingredients used for making crystal meth are available to the public, making it easy to manufacture at home. Just ask Walter White from Breaking Bad.”
Dr. Zucker goes on to say: “Crystal meth was originally viewed as ‘coke for poor people’. As shown in Breaking Bad, it’s made up of cheap cold medication drugs in rural areas. The horrific pictures we know of toothless users with distorted faces were filmed in these areas. It slowly penetrated into western centers like New York, San Francisco and Miami, including into the LGBT community."
Addressing drugs in the LGBT community, Guy Yossef explains that research shows that enduring homophobia and social and family exclusion increase a sense of pressure, loneliness and alienation.
"Received notions of love and intimacy are not in keeping with life experiences within this community and they have no positive childhood models for LGBT intimacy or relationships. The LGBT community is a wonderful place that provides a sense of security and belonging for people who, for years, had felt they didn’t belong anywhere. A culture therefore developed that celebrates one’s sense of self, freedom and happiness and it can include drugs.“
Dr. Zucker, regarded trailblazer for his varied work reducing the damage caused by drugs, says that “For me, crystal meth is a red line. Once you‘ve had a taste of it, it’s extremely difficult to get out. It’s all or nothing. It’s almost impossible to reduce the damages of this drug. In my role as a doctor in this field, I’ve faced a great deal of criticism for telling people using crystal meth that they are a lost cause. Studies show that the overwhelming majority of people who get into the meth scene, don’t get themselves out.“
The effects of Tina come in stages; stage 1, known as the “the rush", lasts about half an hour as the drug is absorbed into the bloodstream and greatly increases heart rate and blood pressure. Next comes “the high", the body feels sharp, focused and energetic and the user feels an increase in sex drive. This can go on for 16 hours.
"Tina takes you to a place where you feel no pain, no anxiety and no depression. So, it sits well with past traumas, feelings of abandonment, baggage of damaged relationships, and a fractured self-image – all the issues affecting the LGBT community resulting from social and family exclusion due to their sexual identity“
The third stage is “the binge” when the user wants another dose to experience the same feelings once more. It can last anything from two to 15 days. Users will experience each of these stages until the body no longer reacts to it.
Tina comes in crystal form, earning the name “crystal meth”, known as “Christina”, or “Tina” for short. Tina can be smoked or injected.
"Unlike coke, which speeds you up and makes you feel you can do anything, or weed that calms you down making you pleasant and congenial, or MDMA that makes you feel loved, Tina takes you to a place where you feel no pain, no anxiety and no depression,” says Yossef. “So, it sits well with past traumas, feelings of abandonment, baggage of damaged relationships, and a fractured self-image – all the issues affecting the LGBT community resulting from social and family exclusion due to their sexual identity.“
“Crystal meth damages almost every organ in the body,” says Dr. Zucker. “Your chances of ending up in the ER by overdosing on a single dose of Tina are lower than ecstasy or weed – but Tina kills slowly.”
“Some people become addicted after taking Tina twice, while others manage the situation for years. You never know who’ll make it and who won’t. There’s an enormous personality changes in high-functioning users. These may be the people looking after you in courts or hospitals. You might even invest millions in their tech companies. Invariably, however, they are controlled by the drug.”
“At first, they enjoy the benefits Tina offers. Like coke, it increases self-confidence. But, bit by bit, it alters your behavior. It changes who you are. MRI readings confirm that it changes your brain and touches on certain areas connected to impulses and behavior.”
Dr. Zucker says that many patients “at first, say they’re not using anymore or that they can control the quantity. Because they believe themselves when they say that it only does them good, you believe them too. They’re convinced they’re in control.”
Give examples of cases you’ve seen “A person who was working American hours and suddenly no longer needed to sleep. He worked nights and was making a lot of money. He quickly realized that his level of functioning was compromised to the point that he couldn’t do anything anymore and needed to detox. Or a young doctor who had published lots of research articles. He was at the top of his career. Why should he sleep at night when he could be writing? People like this readily compensate for what they’re losing at the beginning. But as time goes on, and they’re using more, everything is negatively affected.”
The quick addiction to Tina leads to a series of emergency, sometimes life-threatening, health situations including extreme weight loss, heart attacks, nausea and vomiting, dental decline, insomnia, hallucinations and psychotic episodes. It can cause kidney failure, loss of consciousness and it can kill.
Overseas, a high number of deaths have been attributed to Tina. In Israel, however, it’s hard to estimate the number of deaths resulting from Tina use. “Lots of people show up at the ER with medical problems resulting from Tina that are attributed to other things,“ says Dr. Zucker.
“When patients exhibit symptoms typical to Tina, doctors may determine a stroke and treat the patient accordingly. In the meantime, people are dying – from exactly this. In Israel, we don’t usually conduct postmortems, so the true causes of death are never deciphered. The damage officially attributed to Tina is really just the tip of the iceberg.“
Saving the children
Scientific data shows that 90% of Tina users revert after detox. To address patterns of use unique to the community, the Tel Aviv Municipality has been trying to address the matter at a community level: Four years ago, the municipality founded the county’s only municipal service for treating LGBT addiction. Dozens of addicts are currently being treated within this framework, using both individual and group therapy. Although those seeking help are believed to be much lower than those affected, the waiting list is very long.
“For adults, it’s too late. We have to save the kids,” says Eyal. “They show up by train from Haifa, Jerusalem or Be'er Sheva every weekend. They go to some party or another and it all starts there. There are drugs at every single party. Eventually, it’s Tina. Their parents have no idea what they’re doing. Who’s going to save these kids?”
"At some stage, someone close to me intervened. They knocked on my door and, like a sack of potatoes, dragged me to rehab“
Noam Birenbnaum is exceptional in beating the statistics. “My life stopped at 20,” he tells us. “Seventeen years later, my life looks exactly as I left it when I started using: home, habits, relationships, my career. Everything was frozen. I woke up at the age of 37 and realized I was a baby. I didn’t know how to function in the world – it was very, very scary.“
Eyal has been clean for seven years. While still working on himself, he supports addicts in various frameworks. “It took a long time. At some stage, someone close to me intervened. They knocked on my door and, like a sack of potatoes, dragged me to rehab.“
How did it happen? “I realized it was my last chance. I’d been crawling around this battlefield for long enough and I was out of ammunition. Next time, it would end badly. I listened to all advice offered. Not only that, dealing with the connection of sex to drugs, I re-entered the world very gradually. I invested a lot of time and energy in therapy. You can’t do it alone. It’s a losing battle against elements both from within and from the world. If you’re in trouble, tell people close to you who’ll try and get you the help you need.“