Jarrod Gilbert: Massive meth bust inevitable as supply adapts

Methamphetamine is used by just 1 per cent of the population but it is extremely profitable. Photo / File
Methamphetamine is used by just 1 per cent of the population but it is extremely profitable. Photo / File

A boat washed up on shore, suitcases full of drugs, and people with large wads of cash. Many people will have seen the recent Northland drug bust and been reminded of the Mr Asia gang of the 1970s.

Mr Asia was the moniker given to Marty Johnstone by an Auckland Newspaper but the boss of the syndicate was Johnson's business partner, best friend and the man who murdered him, Terry Clark.

Clark and Johnstone pioneered drug smuggling in New Zealand in the 1970s before becoming mind-blowingly rich when they moved business across the ditch where they enjoyed a bigger market and corrupt Aussie cops who ensured the gang was tipped off to avoid detection.

Before turning to heroin, a vastly more profitable drug, the Mr Asia gang smuggled cannabis " 'Buddha sticks', to be precise. The hippies and others who enjoyed a smoke soon worked out that weed could be grown at home. The local supply took over from imports and in doing so created one of this country's great horticultural success stories, albeit one played out in the underworld.

The drug picked up off a beach in Northland is undergoing a similar distribution transformation but entirely in reverse. Methamphetamine was once made in New Zealand but it's now imported from Asia. And this comes with some big downsides.

Methamphetamine was first produced here in the late 70s by a number of entrepreneurs linked to two Auckland motorcycle clubs. In 1982, the Auckland drug squad became aware that a member of the Hells Angels was buying up large quantities of red phosphorous. The police were confused and assumed he was making smoke bombs " in reality red phosphorus is a key element used in one method of meth manufacturing. The drug was not mentioned in police reports until 1991 as its use widened, becoming particularly popular in the electronic music scene.

Greg Newbold's excellent new book Crime Law and Justice in New Zealand shows there were just a handful of illegal manufacturing busts in the early 1990s. By 2003 there were 81 raids on illegal labs in that year alone.

Initially, methamphetamine was diluted with glucose or other substances and snorted up the nose, but by the new millennium it was sold uncut or "pure" " from where the unique New Zealand term "P" is derived " and it could be smoked; a method of consumption that compounds its negative long-term effects.

P was linked to a number of high profile crimes, most notably the 2003 samurai sword attacks and murder committed by Antonie 'Mad Eyes' Dixon. Such crimes and the obvious addictive nastiness of the drug meant any cool associated with it evaporated. Even gangs banned their members from smoking it (although few had qualms about members dealing it).

Methamphetamine is used by just 1 per cent of the population but it is extremely profitable. In 2011, those profits were threatened by changes to the laws around pseudoephedrine " the main ingredient of P " that meant we could no longer get really good cold and flu meds without a prescription. While that was a real drag for those with runny noses, it was crippling for methamphetamine cooks. The supply side of the market needed to adapt. Enter Asian organised crime.

The number of meth lab busts began to fall away and border seizures of methamphetamine began to rise. In 2010, there were six importation cases before the courts. In 2014, there were 30; almost exclusively the drugs were out of Asia. So while consumers of the drug noticed no difference (meaning the policy was unsuccessful), the opportunity offered to Asian organised crime syndicates has significant implications.

Well-financed Asian criminals increase the chances of corruption, and their interaction with New Zealand crooks will invariably mean the locals get a first-class criminal education. I have a feeling our usual suspects of today will look rather tame by tomorrow's standards.

The massive bust in Northland was as impressive as it was perhaps inevitable. While it highlighted a new trend in the distribution of methamphetamine in New Zealand, it likely signals a shift in our underworld too.

- NZ Herald

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.

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