Paul Holmes on New Zealand

Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: Key emerges as nemesis of P

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A few minutes before Prime Minister John Key arrived at the medium-sized conference room at the Novotel in Auckland on Thursday, someone handed me a copy of the speech he was about to deliver. I had been invited along with representatives of groups who work in the campaign against drugs, especially pure methamphetamine.

I scanned it in disbelief. Here was a real cross-departmental, red-blooded initiative coming from the Prime Minister himself. Only a Prime Minister could bring together such cross-departmental singularity of purpose. In the speech - and I could not believe the language - he declared war on the gangs. His language was unequivocal. "My message to the gangs is clear. This Government is coming after your business and we will use every tool we have to destroy it. We will be ruthless in our pursuit of you and the evil drug you push."

Even the title of the speech was direct and purposeful: "Tackling P". It was not "New initiatives to reduce drug use in New Zealand", or anything as wishy-washy as that. It was straight to the focused point: "Tackling P".

P, the robber of our children and our loved ones, breaker of lives, enemy of decency, honesty and conscience and, for the gangs and the crime syndicates, source of profits the size of a mountain.

The Prime Minister recalled the presence of P in horrific crimes such as the Panmure RSA robbery, and attacks by the samurai sword-waving Antonie Dixon.

For months, the Prime Minister has been banging heads together in his Prime Minister's Taskforce to come up with a plan that involved a comprehensive attack on P and to look at ideas that might work. In no way, I think, did any of us in the room expect the result to be as determined or as multi-pronged as the fierce initiatives Key outlined.

Some months ago, I interviewed Key in my living room, for want of a better place, for our documentary on the P issue, Chasing the Ghost. He said that the P issue mattered to him and that it mattered to the Cabinet, a young Cabinet whose members have young children and teenagers.

It was obvious in the conference room last Thursday that some of the ministers involved who were there to hear the speech - Judith Collins, Tony Ryall and Peter Dunne - were proud of what they have come up with.

I found the television coverage that night not only disappointing, but shallow and ignorant. All that appeared to matter was that small part of a very wide-ranging collection of policies that bans over-the-counter sales of the flu remedies that still use pseudoephedrine (PSE). If you do need PSE in your tablets, you will have to go to the doctor first. Public reaction appeared, of course, to be negative.

But there will not be a P-affected family round this country that would disapprove of banning over-the-counter sales and there are thousands of us. All the budding P cook needs to get started is a packet of PSE pills. A friend of mine told me that it took him 9 seconds to find a P recipe on the internet. I get a harrowing letter from someone desperately worried about a family member on my email every second day.

It was over-the-counter sales of PSE pills and remedies that not only fuelled the P epidemic in this country, but started it.

Of course that one measure will not eradicate the P problem. Key knows this and said so. It was merely one of several prongs to the attack. Let me go through them.

No pseudoephedrine drugs over the counter. Prescription only. As Key pointed out, the police find evidence of locally bought cold and flu medication in about a third of P labs they bust. That is all we need to know, isn't it?

Key said: "P cooks are prepared to pay crews of workers to buy it up at pharmacies." The now widely used and harmless substitute for PSE, phenylephrine, does the job for 80 per cent of people anyway. And, in any case, what is wrong with a lemon and honey drink and a few Disprin for the sinuses? And as a chemist friend told me, when you get a cold you can go to the doctor or the chemist and get something for it; your cold will last seven days. Do nothing, and it will last a week.

Secondly, at Key's direction, he says, Customs will begin to focus seriously on detecting P precursors being smuggled through our borders. They have been told to find more of it. They will have access to "special detection equipment" and will home in on cargo, fast freight and the mail system. More than 40 Customs officers will be mobilised into special anti-drug taskforces. This is music to my ears.

Thirdly, the police have been told to increase their focus on reducing the supply of P and to break the gangs and grab their money. Easier said than done, I guess, but the police Methamphetamine Control Strategy will come into play in November. This will target the gangs and P cooks and do its best to disrupt them. "You can be sure the police have more tools for fighting P then ever before," said the Prime Minister. Police will have new powers to intercept gang communications. Gang membership will be an aggravating factor in sentencing. Police will have new powers against money laundering and new powers for search and surveillance. More music.

Fourthly, if the police are able to break gangs and confiscate their ill-gotten gains, those millions will not disappear into the Consolidated Fund but will find their way to Customs and police for their work against P and to improve access to treatment and therapy. I hope this will be transparent. So he hits the gangs in the back pocket and their proceeds of crime go back to disrupting them further. I have a feeling this clever initiative has Judith Collins' stamp on it.

And fifthly, the Prime Minister has found $22 million for 20 detox beds. This, he says, will allow 2700 additional people to have "ready access". I am not sure how those numbers add up, but they are a start. As well as this, the money will buy 60 more residential beds in specialist facilities for longer-term rehabilitative care. That, he says, is a 60 per cent increase over three years in the amount of residential addiction treatment available now. What is not clear is where these beds will be. And they are probably just a start, but they are a move in a direction that desperate families have been crying out for.

Key says he cannot expand more quickly because we simply don't have the specialist treatment people available. Full orchestra in my head.

There were some other juicy parts that have largely been missed. Key says police and the courts already have the power to divert those addicts arrested into treatment. He wants to find out if that power is being used sufficiently. And really, what is the point of convicting someone for possession of the instrument of addiction - the pipe - and the drug, P, to which they are so cruelly addicted?

He will review the Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Act of 1966. He thinks it is outdated. This will be welcomed by families who are at the point of wanting compulsory, secure treatment for their addicted family member who refuses to do anything about his or her problem. This may mean a family can have their loved one committed.

As a member of a family who has been through hell with the evils of P, I found John Key's speech and announcements very moving. I listened with gratitude and hope. At last, a political leader not only recognised the plight of families at the mercy of P, but seemed genuinely prepared to take tough and comprehensive measures to do something about it.

- Herald on Sunday

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