Advice about vice: My experience with heroin in NZ

The defining drug of the 70s was heroin. The Mr Asia Syndicate was the big name in the news, touching many lives for a decade. David Herkt tells of his own experiences and what he’s learned.

I was given my first heroin, somehow appropriately, by a gay undertaker's assistant in a basement flat in a building opposite the Auckland High Court.

It was the autumn of 1975. Waterloo Quadrant was deep in the orange and yellows of fallen autumn leaves, and New Zealand had been flooded with some of the cheapest and purest heroin in the Western world, courtesy of Terry Clark and Marty Johnson. White powder heroin. Heroin No. 4.

As Christchurch criminologist and associate-professor Greg Newbold would later remark, at that time heroin was cheaper than beer.

Just like everything else, there are fashions in drugs. For New Zealanders in the 1960s and early 1970s, there had been marijuana and LSD. At first our marijuana was the home-grown and low-strength New Zealand Green. Then Johnson and Clark began importing Thai Buddha Sticks, resinous marijuana heads wrapped around a satay stick of bamboo.

It might have been a revelation to a dope-smoker, but it was a high-bulk product and it smelled. You didn't have to be a Customs' drug-dog to recognise the odour. Interception at the border was easy. So Johnson and Clark switched to importing low-bulk, powerful and relatively undetectable heroin.

It was a drug that also had one other advantage for a budding entrepreneur. Habit-forming heroin is "capitalism in action"; an addicted user is a paying customer with an ever-increasing need.

Clark insisted on quality being preserved right down the chain. It was an era where the first fast-food outlets were opening in New Zealand, and both Johnson and Clark were early adopters of the business model.

They effectively franchised their operation, initially advancing their product to allow the establishment of a business, then demanding payment on delivery thereafter.

It was an immensely profitable revolution in drug distribution.

I couldn't watch that first injection. I'd never been good at the doctor's. Male bravado and the faces of the two friends who accompanied me were the only things that got me through it.

The drug itself is an instant whoosh through the body, where every care and knotted muscle is eased and lifted. It wasn't until we got out on to the street a few moments later that I felt the effects fully.

There was a vague lurch of nausea, then a spreading feeling of contentment. Somewhere, insulated, way back, there was a sense that every promise of advertisement was coming home to roost. Later, I'd catch hints of that feeling in thousands of songs, but, for a second, back in 1975, standing on the corner, it was a moment of perfectly contained bliss on a leaf-strewn Auckland street.

"This is wonderful," I remember saying.

Initially, heroin was a glamour product. It was cool.

It was on-sold by entrepreneurs, risk-takers, dealers who came with leather jackets, swaggering reputations, and beautiful girlfriends. Clark's crime family, generally graduates from Witako Prison, met greater New Zealand and established social, legal and police links that would see them flourish. Kiwis discovered that money does talk and forgetting where it came from was conveniently easy.

And never ever forget that when Terry Clark later claimed that the New South Wales Police Force was the best money could buy, he had acquired his experience in New Zealand.

Heroin can be heard in the music of the era. Music was its barometer. There were bands like Dragon, fronted by Marc Hunter with Paul Hewson on keyboards. But April Sun in Cuba was quickly followed by Are You Old Enough? and Dragon's drummer Ian Storey would succumb to an overdose in 1976 at the age of 22. Hewson, too, would go from another.

Their rivals, Hello Sailor, featured Graham Brazier, their charming, opiate-dependant lead singer, whose signature song Blue Lady, concerned a Venetian-blue glass syringe.

I found myself a Blue Lady
To help me through the night ...

Punk rock followed to reflect a country that was in turmoil as a result of Muldoon's financial reforms. "There is no Depression in New Zealand" - yeah, right.

Study any of the photographs from punk clubs like Zwines or the afternoon Windsor Castle gigs, and there is likely to be the daughter of a Cabinet Minister.

She was a well-known Auckland heroin dealer and a desirable flatmate because it was believed she was immune from prosecution. The same photographs will show you the give-away pinpoint pupils and fingers frozen on itchy noses.

Given the strength of the syndicate's heroin, overdosing was a simple fact of life. I saw my first overdose in Parnell while visiting my next-door neighbours. A restaurant owner who had been sitting on the sofa next to me stopped breathing and started turning blue. I raised the subject with the only other person present, a nurse, who was mixing up a dose for himself.

"Not again!" the nurse said, and after failing to stir the restaurant owner, gave him mouth-to-mouth for a minute before returning to organising his dose. There was another mouth-to-mouth, another break to actually have his dose, another mouth-to-mouth, then the nurse slapped the restaurant owner hard across his face.

He promptly revived.

"Why did you do that?" he groggily asked.

It taught me never to panic, that a heroin overdose was generally just the suppression of the breathing reflex. Keeping the patient breathing before administering a sudden painful stimulus was just what the textbooks prescribed.

Gary Baigent's Pigeon over Railway Yards [aka Pigeon, Parnell] of 1965, mirrors the freedom and grunge of heroin addiction, says David Herkt. Picture / Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki
Gary Baigent's Pigeon over Railway Yards [aka Pigeon, Parnell] of 1965, mirrors the freedom and grunge of heroin addiction, says David Herkt. Picture / Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

In combination with a country's economic misfortune, the last of the Mr Asia years were a spiral into grunge that New Zealanders prefer to forget. The syndicate itself had moved offshore, shifting their business concept profitably to Australia and to the United Kingdom.

For the first time, New Zealanders had just taken drug-crime global.

Then one murder led to another and it all ended up in the dock of the Lancaster Crown Court in the UK in 1981, where Terry Clark and a number of other defendants were sentenced for both drug conspiracy and the murder of Marty Johnson.

The Mr Asia money, in the hands of solicitors and others, somehow just disappeared as if it had never existed.

While opiate withdrawal symptoms were never as bad as those depicted in television or movie dramas, the longer anyone is dependent the worse the symptoms will be. The simple knowledge that administration of a drug will solve the problem doesn't help at all. The fear of withdrawal would build up in people's minds even when physically it may have only been a few days of flu-like symptoms and insomnia.

And the consequences were there for all to see. For some people, the perceived need for another dose meant chemist shop burglaries, rip-offs, anything and everything for a quick buck. Others would deal the drug for their daily dose.

However, eventually you just get bored with all the junky business - or at least I did.

When I finally stopped, it wasn't easy. Firstly, it means keeping away from everyone you know. There are only so many people strong enough to continue in the same group of friends and the same world, and not use. I wasn't one of them. I moved countries.

The aches and pains, however, are eventually just that. They are physical symptoms that simply have to be endured: aching joints, shivers, diarrhoea, sleeplessness. There is also a vast chemical loneliness as the insulation is stripped away and everything exposed.

But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. When the supply of heroin dried up in New Zealand, the problem only moved sideways. New Zealanders began making their own: homebake. Take headache pills from a chemist, add a few chemicals and you had a potent heroin equivalent. It was another world-first for Kiwis, but definitely more impure and damaging.

It wouldn't be until the 1990s that another unsuspected consequence came home to roost with the ability to detect the previously unknown Hepatitis C. Users hadn't been able to buy syringes, so they'd shared them, with rudimentary sterilisation. More than 50,000 New Zealanders would eventually be carrying the virus.

With the arrival of successful treatments in the new century, suddenly waiting rooms in Hep C clinics were a who's who of 1970s and 1980s New Zealand culture, from former band members to successful businesspeople.

But now that the members of New Zealand's heroin generation are about to receive their pensions, it does seem time to ask what we have learned.

Not much. Our drug policy is still the same knee-jerk reaction. After the fairly benign Ecstasy, we got stuck with the more destructive methamphetamine. One drug might be prohibited but a new and frequently more damaging one arrives to take its place.

Drugs have always been with us and always will be, but it is the way we deal with them that causes the problem.

We might not be able to stop them, but we can always reduce the harm.

- Canvas

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