David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Paradise lost? Methamphetamine back with a vengeance in the postcard-perfect Far North

An epidemic of methamphetamine is ripping communities apart — but the fightback has begun. David Fisher reports.

The smell of summer is in the air, heralding holidays in the Far North of white-sand beaches and glittering blue seas.

The coastline is looking increasingly like a ribbon around the rot. The land between the Far North beach communities has long been a stark contrast - the billionaire's mansion only a short drive from families in cow sheds.

Inland, the bodies are piling up - the flotsam and jetsam of a new drug boom. Methamphetamine is back with a vengeance.

In Kaitaia, where four people have been killed this year, it's easier to score meth than weed. Money and opportunity has gang rubbing up against gang, need pitted against greed.

Just like the drug famously does to its users, meth is tweaking the most vulnerable parts of the Far North, turning it plain nasty and eating away at the healthy parts like a cancer.

"We can go fishing if we want," says Carter, grabbing at the sea and its bounty to show there's more going on in his communities - "really good things!" - than bad headlines.

"We don't want to diminish the challenge we have ahead of us. Yes, there are some issues in relation to drug use and wider issues from a social perspective. That's the negative side.

"Let me talk about the positive side. It's a bloody great place, the Far North - Kaitaia and surrounding districts."

The Helena Bay luxury lodge owned by Russian billionaire Alexander Abramov is an example of the wealth divide in Northland. Photo / Greg Bowker.
The Helena Bay luxury lodge owned by Russian billionaire Alexander Abramov is an example of the wealth divide in Northland. Photo / Greg Bowker.

But there's no amount of polishing this one. Kaitaia, where 5000 people live, has seen four murders in less than year. It's right up there in violence statistics too.

These are symptoms of a wider Northland malaise - two more murders in Whangarei in the last month, both gang-related.

By then, the police had sent for and received reinforcements. Officers from Auckland were sent north to help.

Crisis - that's the word being thrown around.

'THE DEVIL HAS ALL THE GOOD TUNES'

Peeni Henare, Labour MP for Tamaki Makaurau, on Te Tii Marae with Labour leader Andrew Little on Waitangi Day. Photo / Northern Advocate.
Peeni Henare, Labour MP for Tamaki Makaurau, on Te Tii Marae with Labour leader Andrew Little on Waitangi Day. Photo / Northern Advocate.

Labour MP Peeni Henare and wife Maia raised their family in Moerewa, where jobs are scarce and the town's promise has long rested on the freezing works to its south.

People talk about how meth has infiltrated the communities in the North. Henare knows.

His nephew Moses Mahanga, 25, was killed two weeks ago, followed by cousin "John Boy" Harris, 37, who died after a gunshot to the chest a week ago.

"Growing up as a kid, you knew weed was there. Nowadays, it's all about P. It's rife, right throughout the north."

Mahanga was a Head Hunter and Harris a Tribesman. The murders are not connected other than by the environment in which they lived, one in which meth is money and it flows in rivers of crystal.

Henare: "The North is known for its marine and coastal areas. The Bay of Islands is the picturesque Northland we liked to think about. The reality is in the small towns - Kawakawa, Moerewa, Kaitaia. That's very different."

Mansions on the coast and, inland, "homes that aren't fit for animals".

"What we need up there is an economy that will sustain families - give them opportunities to work."

The problems aren't isolated to Northland - there's just a lot more meth in the north.

Denis O'Reilly, Hawke's Bay-based Black Power member and social activist, says he's seeing "street gang warfare" that has been absent from New Zealand for 30 years. It's driven largely by meth and the money it generates.

"Suicides are up, domestic violence is up. I haven't seen this since the 1980s. It's f***ing difficult and it's meth-related.

"[Nationally] we're seeing a product relaunch with the lower end distributors more generously rewarded so the poor consumer at the bottom end is still paying 100 bucks for a point."

By contrast, in Northland, prices are said to have fallen. O'Reilly says the generous distribution of the money is smoothing the way for a boom time.

Denis O'Reilly. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle
Denis O'Reilly. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle

"To be frank, it's an enjoyable drug in the first instance. You can party like an animal and f*** like a horse. Then you get the psychological deterioration and the family break-up."

It was all looking good until now, he says. John Key's "war on P" seemed to be trending towards success but "supply has worked out as a force majeure".

"We have a supply-driven spoke and our borders are porous. The devil has all the good tunes at the moment."

It's time to try everything, O'Reilly says, rather than seeking out evidence of success before risking funding. Sometimes evidence is elusive, or takes time to emerge, and we don't have the luxury of time.

"We have a problem. It's complex and it's difficult but it's not insurmountable."

Ross Bell at the NZ Drug Foundation speaks positively of the Prime Minister's "war on P".

Much of the action taken by agencies was work that could have been done earlier - and done anyway - but "they didn't until the PM came along and made it a political priority".

The number of users is trending downwards even though the latest "progress" report shows meth is increasingly available. Still, use is "coming down" - "in pockets".

Treatment is patchy, Bell says. There have always been waiting lists for treatment in New Zealand but now those lists are front-loaded with meth users.

They are also focused on urban areas and those "pockets" of trouble tend to be places where treatment is harder to access.

New Zealand spends about $120m a year on treatment - an investment which could double and have a massive impact.

That's not a lot of money, he says, when you're spending $1b on a new prison.

POLICE: WE WON'T ARREST OUR WAY OUT OF THIS

Police and ESR staff at the scene of a methamphetamine lab raid during Taskforce Easter. Photo / Northern Advocate
Police and ESR staff at the scene of a methamphetamine lab raid during Taskforce Easter. Photo / Northern Advocate

Scour the High Court files for signs of police holding the line and it looks like they're trying to catch raindrops.

One example might be the Organised and Financial Crime Agency of New Zealand's "Taskforce Easter". It was set up in 2014 to target a Head Hunters meth operation run from a house in the country west and south of Whangarei.

The resource dedicated was huge, court documents show. There were telephone intercepts, specialist police officers carrying out close physical surveillance. Super-sneak police were used to get a bug into the house where the meth was being cooked.

Months of detective work, years of court time - an incredible cost and energy with a dozen people involved sent to prison for sentence which stretched out, in some case, to almost 20 years.

In May this year, as some of the sentences were handed down, Justice Simon Moore told how "this dreadful drug is causing unprecedented levels of damage in our community". The total amount of meth police pinned on the crew was 9kg.

Police stumbled across 494kg of methamphetamine in Northland in June. Photo / Supplied.
Police stumbled across 494kg of methamphetamine in Northland in June. Photo / Supplied.

And then, a month later, 494kg was recovered from the beach west of Kaitaia.

The enormity of the find confounded every statistic. Since the Prime Minister's action plan was launched in 2009, seizures for the entire year barely bumped above the 9kg turned up by Taskforce Easter.

In 2011, 53kg; in 2012, 12.5kg; 2013, 31kg. It lifted to 293kg in 2015 when Customs found 79kg as it was passing through New Zealand from South America.

The find at the beach exposed just how superficial the current approach was.

There has also been a shift in meth trade. The restrictions on cold and flu medication with pseudoephedrine made it harder to get the base ingredient for local manufacture.

Police seized a record 494kg of methamphetamine in June. Photo / Supplied.
Police seized a record 494kg of methamphetamine in June. Photo / Supplied.

Distributors were faced with a choice - importing the raw ingredients for local manufacture or importing dirt-cheap meth from overseas.

The choice was easy. One person in the distribution chain told of unloading sacks of meth from shipping containers where they were stacked, one on top of another. A single sack would have contained more meth than an entire year's enforcement and detection work, some years.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this," says Northland police commander, Superintendent Russell Le Prou. "We're going to have to do something smarter."

Northland police area commander Superintendant Russell Le Prou. Photo / Northern Advocate.
Northland police area commander Superintendant Russell Le Prou. Photo / Northern Advocate.

There's $3m available for that "smarter" option, announced this month by the Prime Minister as part of his Tackling Methamphetamine Action Plan. The money is funding for a combined approach by police and the Northland District Health Board.

"There has to be some enforcement but what we have to do is concentrate on end users and changing some of their habits," says Le Prou. For police, "it's a shift in thinking", he says.

"It's a shift and a pilot for how we might move nationally. It's in its very infancy."

Police and health workers have yet to meet.

However, he talks about the way police worked to tackle family violence - encouraging a community response and connection which changes the environment. A solid economic action plan is also critical. What's more, the Social Wellbeing Governance Group - co-chaired by Le Prou - brings in education, welfare, Maori leaders and other agencies.

"There's a groundswell of support for action. Kaitaia - they've been hurt by some of the headlines. There's a lot of good community people, a lot of well-intentioned communities. All these people are against the use of P. We've got to stand up against it."

The price is down and use is up, he says. The reason? "Simple economics." New Zealand has one of the highest-priced meth markets in the world. It's attractive on an international level.

The fightback starts from a difficult place. As much as Le Prou would love to promise change tomorrow, "there's generations of family dysfunction".

The problems in the North have deep roots.

The surf rolls in at 90 Mile Beach - where 494kg of methamphetamine was found this year. Photo / Brenna Maxwell.
The surf rolls in at 90 Mile Beach - where 494kg of methamphetamine was found this year. Photo / Brenna Maxwell.

'WE'VE OVERLOOKED THE DISENFRANCHISED'

Mayor John Carter is due to meet Deputy Prime Minister Bill English to talk about ways to life the Far North out of its struggles.

There's no doubt about the sincerity of effort. Working with Carter is Hone Harawira - former local MP and firebrand whose constituents are those hardest hit by a resurgent meth trade.

To have English engaged on one side and Harawira on the other is an illustration of the energy involved and Carter's recognition of the seriousness of the issue.

There's so much opportunity between the wealth of the coast and the struggling communities inland. "And there's no question there is disparity," says Carter.

And within those struggling communities are those who have been disenfranchised. It's in these pockets of society that the cancer that comes with meth takes hold.

"There's moves afoot to bring them back into our society. For too long we've overlooked them."

- NZ Herald

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