Waging war on P

By Andrew Laxon

How has P affected you? Tell us your story at newsdesk@nzherald.co.nz

From today the Herald begins a six-part series on the damage methamphetamine is doing to New Zealand. We examine how the drug gets in, its devastating effect on society and what we can do to fix the problem.

New Zealanders are the number one P users per head in the developed world, ahead of Australia and the United States. The trade is now a massive illegal business worth up to an estimated $1.5 billion a year — about the same size as the wine industry.

Last year police and customs seized more than 3 million pills used to make the drug but they estimate organised crime groups could be smuggling in at least 10 million, enough to make more than 600 kilograms of methamphetamine.

The drug sells for up to $1000 a gram and its purity level of about 80% makes it highly addictive. One man spent $600,000 in two years to feed his habit, losing his job as a lawyer and his house.

Research shows regular users under the age of 25 lose control under the drug — 31% had a car crash, 60% had unprotected sex and 57% passed out. And criminals who use P heavily commit more crime — those who spend more than $1000 a month on the drug admit to stealing property worth $2735 on average and making $3145 from dealing drugs in the same month.

Until a recent law change almost 50% of High Court cases arose from P.

P: THE DRUG THAT CHANGED THE FACE OF CRIME

It was the biggest drugs bust in New Zealand's history. Hidden at the bottom of 1000 cans of green paint, police and customs officers found plastic blocks containing 96kg of "P" or pure methamphetamine.

A second shipment from China contained pseudoephedrine, the chemical used to make P, in bags of cement plaster. Together they were worth a record $135 million.

The two Chinese men who ran the smuggling ring became the first P dealers to be given life imprisonment - and in her sentencing Justice Patricia Courtney spelt out why.

"A veritable flood of methamphetamine makes its way across our borders each year," she told Wei Feng Pan and Ming Chin Chen.

"Users quickly become addicted and the drug has a devastating effect on the personality and function of almost all who use it. It leads to the destruction of relationships, serious domestic violence, street violence and gang violence."

The drug was directly implicated in some murder cases, she said, and the courts regarded major dealers on a par with murderers. Meanwhile the courts and prisons were "weighed down with the burden" of P-related crime.

The landmark 2006 case, dubbed Operation Major, seemed like a welcome breakthrough at the time to Auckland drug policing boss Detective Inspector Bruce Good, the region's crime services manager. But reality soon sank in.

It turned out the smugglers had previously brought in at least four other shipments - three of methamphetamine, one of pseudoephedrine - so a much bigger quantity of drugs probably got through.

Even more sobering, says Good, the huge bust had virtually no long-term effect on the street price of P, which for police is the real measure of success.

"There was a blip but it was short-lived. So we realised that when you take out a syndicate there's another person with just as much greed in their eyes to take their place."

As depressing as it sounds, New Zealand's biggest drug bust only scratched the surface of a huge methamphetamine trade, which has overwhelmed law enforcement and set off an unprecedented violent crime wave.

Customs estimate they catch only 20 per cent of what's imported and police privately believe they are finding less than 10 per cent of P labs.

The result is a thriving black market, which ruins the lives of users and their families and affects all New Zealanders through higher crime rates.

Chief High Court Judge Justice Tony Randerson told the Weekend Herald that P-driven crime was an "unprecedented phenomenon", which tied up the courts and played a part in large and small offences.

Crown Solicitor Simon Moore SC, Auckland's top prosecutor, was even more blunt. "It's had a massive and extraordinary effect on crime and crime statistics - in this city particularly."

The problem began about a decade ago as local gangs such as Head Hunters and Hells Angels realised that they could make a fortune from manufacturing and selling the new and highly addictive drug. The number of secret P labs discovered by police soared from nine to 202 over three years from 2000 to 2003.

As the market for pure methamphetamine grew, the gangs joined forces with organised crime groups in China, who could supply the drug and its ingredients in bulk. The Chinese liked New Zealanders' appetite for meth - one of the world's highest with 3.4 per cent of 15 to 45-year-olds using the drug each year - and our willingness to pay up to $1000 a gram. For the first time New Zealand became a drug market in its own right for international criminals.

By this stage the alarming effects of the drug were becoming obvious. Triple RSA killer William Bell and samurai sword murderer Antonie Dixon became household names. The Government responded by classifying methamphetamine a Class A drug and creating P lab investigation teams in 2003.

It was too late. By 2006, as methamphetamine-related offences rose by 50 per cent, Police Commissioner Howard Broad admitted P was causing an increase in violent crime. Last year former Justice Minister Annette King told her cabinet colleagues that none of the Government's moves were having any effect on the price, purity or availability of the drug.

Asked now if P has changed the face of crime in the last 10 years, Simon Moore replies: "Absolutely."

He points out that when New Zealanders hear about a horrific crime these days our first instinct is to ask: Was P involved? Usually we are right, as in the fatal January shooting of 17-year-old courier driver Halatau Naitoko on the Northwestern Motorway while police pursued Stephen Hohepa McDonald, an armed gunman on a methamphetamine binge. "That was a classic example of a guy coming down off P. The drug has a devastating effect in a way that no substance I'm aware of ever has before."

Moore has seen hundreds of cases since he started prosecuting in 1982, when heroin was the deadly drug. But heroin addicts were stable once they got their fix - methamphetamine users tend to go berserk.

He remembers the dawning realisation that methamphetamine was breeding a new kind of criminal. It started with Antonie Dixon, who chopped off the hands of two women with a samurai sword and murdered an innocent stranger. "When you add methamphetamine to a psychopathic personality you exaggerate all the worst aspects of a psychopath. The great tragedy of Antonie Dixon was that what he did was probably inevitable. The other great concern ... is that there are other psychopaths out there."

Detective Inspector Mark Gutry, who has led many serious crime investigations in South Auckland, also has memories of Dixon in his early meth-using days.

He says the same pattern of behaviour occurs in many lower profile crimes, from a P-driven stabbing homicide in Beachlands earlier this year to petty crime that seldom makes headlines.

"With a lot of violent crime, meth is involved. It changes personality, brings out violence in people. Although in a lot of cases we can't prove that P is involved we can see evidence that it is there."

New research is starting to confirm these suspicions. A two-year survey of more than 2000 people arrested by police showed P users were responsible for higher rates of property crime (such as burglary and car theft) as well as drug dealing.

The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring survey found those who had spent more than $1000 on methamphetamine in the past month made an average of $2735 from property offending over the same period, compared to only $368 by those who did not buy the drug.

They were also more likely to deal drugs themselves, making $3145 a month compared to $466 for non-P buyers.

Massey University drug expert Chris Wilkins, who supervised the survey, says the heavy P users would have been involved in property crime anyway but they probably committed more offences to pay for the drug.

He agrees with Moore's belief that from society's point of view, methamphetamine is more dangerous than heroin.

"Really serious things can happen because methamphetamine users tend to be out there in the community doing stuff while they're high, whereas an opium user tends to be more introverted and in their own world."

Wilkins says earlier research from the university's Illicit Drug Monitoring System, an annual survey of drug users, found many people who used P twice a week or more admitted they lost their temper, argued with others and did something under the influence of the drug that they later regretted.

Among younger users (aged under 25), 31 per cent said they had had a car crash, 60 per cent had unprotected sex and 57 per cent had passed out.

Older P users were more likely to get into debt (69 per cent), damage a friendship (74 per cent) or end a personal relationship (64 per cent).

Meth campaigner and former detetective Mike Sabin says P lies behind a huge range of social problems including domestic violence and child abuse. He predicts we have not begun to see its long-term impact on mental illness and P addicts' children.

"A crystal meth user may only last about five years - by the end of that time they are either recovering or dead. But in that time they cause immense damage to society."

He knows of one man who went through $250,000 of an estate in about 18 months and a lawyer who spent $600,000 over two years. He lost his job, spent all his income and had to sell his property to feed his habit.

Sabin says people on P won't recognise they need help. "That is half the problem with families who want to help. They cannot get their loved ones to recognise just how bad things are."

Justice Randerson also describes the rise of methamphetamine as a major social issue, which requires a reponse from the whole community.

"It's got to the level where it's so easy to make meth, people are just making it in their kitchens. In some cases, pensioners are going around to chemists and getting materials - pseudoephedrine from common products like flu medication - buying it up then supplying to manufacturers for a little extra pocket money."

Last year Justice Randerson made a rare public plea for political action, as meth cases soared to almost 50 per cent of cases heard in the High Court.

Thanks to a new system which pushes smaller offences back to the District Court, he says this has now dropped to about 20 per cent, allowing the court to hear more trials for murder and other serious violence.

But the workload is still massive as each meth trial takes six to 12 weeks. Many involve thousands of pages of transcripts from bugged phone conversations between the accused, which often have to be translated.

Some cases have to be split up because they involve so many defendants - one operation has been divided into six different trials. All have to be held in front of juries because meth dealing carries a possible sentence of life imprisonment, "We're talking about courts being locked up for months and months," says Moore.

He estimates that before the diversion of smaller crimes to the District Court, the true total of P-related offences being heard in the High Court was 80 per cent or more.

Moore and Bruce Good are hoping for a strong public response to the newly formed Stellar Trust, which launches its P awareness campaign tonight at a Sky City dinner.

Both have joined the advisory board and say they are optimistic the trust can improve co-ordination between government agencies and raise public awareness.

Moore talks about the drug to community groups. He says it's not just his job, it's personal.

"I've got close friends whose children have been affected by the drug and they've lost their kids - in one instance lost their home.

"I've got friends who have had business partners who've been methamphetamine addicts and they've lost their businesses.

"We all have a collective responsibility in meeting this thing."

Additional reporting: Jared Savage

METH UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

What is P?
"P" is the New Zealand term for pure methamphetamine, also known overseas as ice or crystal. It's a synthetic drug, which gives users an intense high by stimulating the pleasure centres of the brain. This is followed by an equally intense low as the body struggles to cope with the withdrawal symptoms. P can be smoked - the usual method in this country - snorted, injected or swallowed.

Where did it come from?
Methamphetamine was first developed in Japan in 1893 and used by both sides during World War II. Japanese kamikaze pilots used it before their suicide missions and Adolf Hitler is supposed to have taken it daily. It was eventually banned in the 1960s, when a worldwide illegal trade began.

How did it get here?
Outlaw motorcycle gangs from the US shared the recipe with their New Zealand counterparts, who were already experienced at making homebake heroin in the 1980s. At first the drug appeared here as speed - a milder version with only about 5 per cent purity, compared to up to 95 per cent for pure methamphetamine. Police found their first P lab in 1996 in Christchurch. A few years later there were hundreds of them.

How does it affect people?
During the high, most users get a huge rush of energy, as well as pleasure. They can stay awake for days, work hard and not feel hungry. At this stage most users are more likely to argue, look for fights and feel they are invincible. As they come off the drug they feel hungry, sleepy and depressed and have strong cravings for another dose.

What are the long-term effects?
P users need a bigger hit each time to get the same high because the drug gradually shuts down the brain's normal ability to feel pleasure. Over time the drug leads to severe weight loss and psychological problems, such as paranoia. Frequent users often pick holes in their skin as they scratch at imaginary sores.

Can you be addicted after just one smoke?
Some users say they were. A more reliable answer is that P is one of the most addictive drugs around - behind heroin but well ahead of ecstasy or cannabis. A 2007 survey of New Zealand drug users found 55 per cent of frequent P users (once a month or more) were dependent on the drug, compared to 83 per cent for opiates (eg heroin) or 10 per cent for ecstasy. Drug educator Mike Sabin warns; "Meth users don't realise they're addicted until it's too late because the pleasure signals are too strong. It can take six to 12 months but by that time they find it very difficult to stop."

Are more people using P?
Meth use almost doubled between 1998 and 2001 as the drug took off in New Zealand, then levelled out. We still rank as the highest users among developed countries, ahead of Australia and the United States, and there are signs that P users are becoming more dependent on the drug. "The total number of users have stayed the same," says Dr Chris Wilkins of Massey University, who runs an annual survey of drug users. "But the users who have persisted are more likely to need to fund their drug use through property offending, drug dealing and things like that."

Is it still considered cool?
Wilkins says P lost its party drug reputation a few years ago once people saw the violence and addiction it caused. Methamphetamine slid down the social ladder from a drug used by all classes, including business people and professionals, to a lower socio-economic market. He thinks it explains the increase in property crimes linked to P. "If you're unemployed or in a low-paying job, property offending or drug dealing is much more likely."

Where did the casual users go?
Probably to ecstasy, says Wilkins. Ecstasy use has slowly been creeping up in the annual drug surveys as P use falls away slightly.

Does everyone agree?
No. Sabin argues P is as widely used as ever but says it has gone underground for middle class users, who know their addiction is now socially unacceptable. He reckons eight out of 10 calls to his consultancy, Methcon, are from the families of professionals in the middle to upper income bracket.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

December 2001
William Bell bludgeons three people to death with the butt of a shotgun while robbing the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA.

April 2002
John Johnson stabs a man to death at a family picnic at Omana Regional Park, south of Auckland. The murdered man, Faletoi Kei, had walked over to ask Johnson if he wanted to join them.

May 2002
Ese Falealii kills pizza worker Marcus Doig and bank teller John Vaughan on an armed robbery spree.

January 2003
Antonie Dixon cuts off the hands of his two housemates with a Samurai sword and later shoots a stranger dead in a Pakuranga carpark.

September 2003
Steve Williams batters his step-daughter Coral Burrows to death because she makes a face at him when he tells her to go to school.

January 2006
Trevor Eagle abducts a woman from her home, drives her in her car to a forest and repeatedly sexually violates her. His lawyer calls him "a living, walking example of the dangers of P".

November 2006
Keith McEwen and Christopher Manuel carry out a vicious sexual attack on two Dutch honeymooners in the Bay of Islands.

April-June 2006
Frankie Edwards abducts and rapes three South Auckland women and attacks three others. "Why has he done it?" his lawyer asks the court. "The only thing I can think of is the delusional ravages of P."

September 2008
A gunman kills undercover policeman Don Wilkinson at point-blank range after he tries to bug a car outside a suspected P-lab. Two men are charged with his murder.

January 2009
An armed gunman leads police on a chase which ends in the fatal shooting of an innocent 17-year-old courier driver on Auckland's northwestern motorway. A lawyer for the accused man, Stephen Hohepa McDonald, says he is a P user with no memory of what happened that day.

- NZ Herald

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