Drug rush: The P phenomenon

By Phil Taylor

In October 2001, this newspaper ran a story about a "new, powerful and expensive" drug that had created a class of burglars, stealing to feed $1000-a-day habits.

The article referred to crystal methamphetamine and introduced a new term "Ice" to the New Zealand lexicon. It was one of the first media reports about the problem methamphetamine abuse has come to represent.

Six years on, it has been raised as a factor in murderous robberies and crazed killings, been the subject of a Government action plan and yet it remains the single most-seized drug by Customs and the biggest single driver of police work. Although amphetamines have been available for decades in such things as diet pills, it wasn't until the late 1990s that it became a significant issue as knowledge spread about how to manufacture the drug in homemade laboratories using ephedrine tablets and readily accessible - and highly toxic - chemicals.

The spread of the drug is reflected in the dramatic rise in clandestine laboratories detected by police, from just one in 1996, to 41 in 2001, to 202 in 2003.

Knowledge and ingredients are the necessary items for methamphetamine cooks. Little space is required. Labs have been found in wardrobes and cars - in December 2006, police found in the back of a car the 1000th lab since they started counting 10 years earlier.

Interceptions of ephedrine tablets by the Customs Service 10,000 in 2000, 33,000 in 2001, 830,000 in 2003 - has reflected the boom in methamphetamine as a drug of choice.

The number of illegal laboratories discovered annually has remained in the lower 200s but Customs has continued to intercept more and more precursor tablets, suggesting manufacturing in New Zealand remains widespread.

"It's either that or a lot of people in New Zealand have colds," Customs' drugs investigations manager Bill Perry deadpans. He says methamphetamine has been a phenomenon and shows no sign of waning.

"We first started seeing it in the late 1990s and since then it's just got worse and worse. The interception figures have gone through the roof."

Perry's staff see both the finished product - generally referred to in New Zealand as "crystal" or "ice" due to its rock salt-like appearance - and the precursors needed by the meth cooks. The latter come in the form of cold medicine tablets such as Sudafed and Contact NT. It is the latter that Customs see most regularly.

Contact NT is the name for an over-the-counter flu remedy produced in China. Though not illegal there, it is a class C regulated drug in New Zealand because of its high pseudoephedrine concentration.

Last year 2.3 million tablets were intercepted - enough to produce 147kg of methamphetamine. which the National Drug Intelligence Bureau estimates would sell for between $110 million and $147 million.

If interceptions of the finished drug are a guide, then ready-to-use methamphetamine is making its way to New Zealand in ever-greater quantities. Government analysts suspect this may in part be a response to the law change in 2004 which made the precursors Class C drugs and thus changed the risk-reward ratio of smuggling them. The rationale here is that if you are breaking the law smuggling precursors, you may as well traffic the ready-to-use product.

They suspect another factor is a perception among users that the crystal form of the drug is more pure than powder.

Crystal methamphetamine comprises 90 per cent of all methamphetamine seized in New Zealand since 2000. Since 2003, the vast majority has been found at the border, perhaps unsurprisingly as international syndicates are likely to deal in bigger quantities than local operators.

Last year's interception figures were the most extreme: 98 per cent of all methamphetamine seized was intercepted at the border. Though it is a continuation of the pattern of the past four years, the 2006 figures were skewed by the biggest-ever methamphetamine bust in New Zealand.

Tagged Operation Major, 95kg of crystal methamphetamine - enough for almost a million "hits" - and 150kg of pseudoephedrine was found hidden in shipping containers in May last year. Authorities estimated the methamphetamine to be worth $95 million and the precursor drug Contact NT $40 million.

In the raids which followed, six people were arrested and $60,000 in cash, money counting machines, false passports, handguns, an M16 assault rifle and a James Bond-style pen gun - all loaded - were found.

Those drugs came from the southern Chinese port of Shekou.

The popularity of the crystal form may be as much driven by supply as by notions about purity. China is the world's biggest blackmarket drug factory and the methamphetamine it pours out is mainly crystal.

The impact of Operation Major was noticed by Massey University researchers in their annual survey of 318 frequent drug users (including 114 who regularly use methamphetamine). They noted crystal methamphetamine was harder to find in the months following the seizure.

However, the trend reported by frequent methamphetamine users in the most recent (2006) survey was that the drug was generally easy to get and they believed more people they knew were using it.

"There is a fairly large methamphetamine market in New Zealand now which, although it doesn't seem to be growing, is still entrenched and the drug is nearly as easily available ... as cannabis," says lead researcher Dr Chris Wilkins. He says methamphetamine is probably second in popularity behind cannabis.

Amphetamines have long been around in such things as diet pills but meth's rapid growth as a social drug is attributed to outlaw motorcycle gangs, such as the Hells Angels, who were introduced to methamphetamine and its manufacture by overseas chapters.

American motorcycle gangs were producers of amphetamine drugs during the 1980s but it didn't take off here for another decade.

Wilkins suggests it was a matter of conditions being right. Raw materials - in the form of over-the-counter cold remedies (now prescription only) - were readily available, New Zealand had experience of cooking drugs from converting marijuana into hashish, and it coincided with Ecstasy use and the dance culture.

It helped that meth can be smoked - as New Zealand doesn't have a culture of injecting drugs. Wilkins suggests that helped methamphetamine, at least initially, avoided the loser connotation of some drugs.

"If you did heroin, you tended to be a drop-out, the cliched heavy user, whereas you could do methamphetamines and still be quite productive and functional so long as you didn't have problems. It fitted with the 21st century culture where you expect to do well in your career and also socially, and I think that also fits with the New Zealand culture."

Is regular use of the drug ultimately and inevitably destructive?

Not everyone becomes addicted and has serious problems but whereas Wilkins puts cannabis at the lower end of addictiveness, he rates meth is at the higher end, along with heroin.

In last year's survey, 59 per cent of meth users considered themselves dependent on the drug compared to only 9 per cent for Ecstasy.

As far as damage to life went, nearly all meth users said it had harmed at least one area of their lives, with three-quarters nominating personal relationships and nearly as many attributing health problems to their drug uses. Many reported symptoms consistent with drug psychosis - strange thoughts, hallucinations, paranoia, short temper.

Methamphetamine is a short-term performance enhancer, boosting energy and alertness, but the Massey surveys suggest that in the long-term it is anything but. Frequent users rated the same as intravenous drug users in terms of social deprivation. The same percentage (one-third) of both groups had no educational qualifications and only a quarter were in paid employment.

If the drug was initially considered cool among high achievers, that has changed. More recently, says Wilkins, frequent users are predominantly from lower socio-economic groups.

For some who find themselves jobless, desperate and addicted, crime follows. Methamphetamine represents a huge workload for police that reaches far beyond core drug crimes or headline-grabbing events such as the samurai sword attack by Antonie Dixon, in which a woman lost her hand and a man his life, the murder of 6-year-old Coral Ellen Burrows by her stepfather Steven Williams, or the murders committed by Ese Junior Falealii.

"There's no question about it, it is a significant crime-driver," says Detective Superintendent Steve Rutherford, crime manager of Counties Manukau, New Zealand's busiest police district. "These people who sell deal in large amounts of money and those stupid enough to use it have to have the money to pay them. It's not just the drug crimes it's all of the spin-offs that go with it."

"Some who buy work. [But] the more they get involved the more their health goes downhill, their work and relationships suffer and the more bucks they need [to feed their addiction]. There's no secret about that."

New Zealand Customs Service and the police have stationed an officer each in Beijing.

Police have specialists in dismantling clandestine labs, Customs have modern search technology - including truck-mounted x-ray equipment for scanning containers and a police-led agency to tackle organised crime is to be set up.

That agency won't be short of work if it targets drug organisations.

Customs averages a drug interception a day, about 90 per cent of them methamphetamine precursors.

They arrive via all avenues - mail, air and sea freight, express parcel delivery, the airport - concealed wherever space allows.

"We've found it in pre-packed foodstuffs, computer hardware, lava lamps, books, magazines, clothing - you name it," says Perry.

"I've often been asked whether I think there is a Fu Man Chu figure sitting somewhere pulling the strings. No. There are a lot of different groups but they are organised and entrepreneurial. They have seen a niche in the market."

"As long as enough people think it isn't a problem and continue to buy, someone will fill that gap."

The lowdown on P

What is Methamphetamine?

Belongs to group of drugs known as stimulants, releases high levels of dopamine, enhancing mood and body movement. Can be smoked, snorted, injected or eaten. Potentially very addictive. Class A drug.

What are some of its "street" names?

Most commonly referred to as P, also Meth, Speed, Pure, Crystal, Ice, Crank, Glass.

What are some short-term effects?

Increased alertness, paranoia, hallucinations, insomnia, loss of appetite.

What are some long-term effects?

Effects of long-term use can include fatal kidney and lung disorders, brain damage, depression, violent and aggressive behaviour, lowered resistance to illness and weight loss.

* Source: Foundation for Alcohol and Drug Education, www.fade.org.net

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