For weeks, government officials have been trying to protect the reputations of the sophisticated international crime syndicates that brand themselves domestically with monikers like Mongrel Mob, Black Power and Head Hunters.
Other countries use words like mafia, triad or yakuza to describe these groups. Here, the Wellington and Grey Lynn liberal elites have convinced themselves that the local franchises are primarily support groups for the dispossessed, with a bit of crime on the side.
In fact, as local branch offices, the gangs' commercial performance is much more impressive. They have achieved control over the value chain from port to pipe, to an extent Fonterra, Affco or Zespri could only dream of.
Today, the gangs' operations include managing the importation of all methamphetamine, cocaine and MDMA into New Zealand; regulating local production of cannabis and limited volumes of methamphetamine; licensing geographically based retail trade; manipulating supply and demand to keep prices in a narrow range; mediating commercial disputes more quickly and decisively than the Commerce Commission could manage; and providing rehabilitation services for their retail customers who the courts order to seek help in exchange for shorter sentences.
Efforts to introduce greater competition in the cannabis market last year were prevented with the help of some unlikely allies, including the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, neither of whom publicly supported reform.
Like any commodity, from milk powder and hamburger patties to unbranded fruit, prices of methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and cannabis trend down over time, risking profit margins.
In response, manufacturers and distributors have chased the economies of scale that globalisation offers by centralising their operations in a handful of international hubs.
New Zealand distributors and retailers have adapted by establishing long-term, exclusive supply agreements with larger players, mainly the Sinaloa cartel.
Like our old producer boards, Sinaloa prefers to secure near-monopolies in markets where it establishes a presence. We might wish Pharmac, MBIE, and the Ministry of Health had developed such respectful and streamlined commercial relationships with Pfizer and Merck for the supply of their Covid vaccine and new antiviral pill.
The gangs would never be stupid enough to rebuff an offer for early access to an innovative new product.
Like all businesses, the gangs are subject to the Tax Administration Act, Commerce Act and Fair Trading Act, albeit with imperfect compliance. When local operations become known to the IRD through the courts, it collects company and income tax and GST when accounts can be reconstructed.
The franchises pay other forms of tax or dividends to their owners. It's unclear how much the shareholders invest in early childhood education and primary healthcare, rather than back into growing the business.
Enforcement is possible under the Commerce Act against anti-competitive behaviour and under the Fair Trading Act against misleading conduct. But this usually requires complaints from other participants or consumers of mislabelled product. These are uncommon.
Since the Mt Eden remand prisoner was driven home nearly a month ago to Whakatīwai — after unauthorised stops at "private addresses" in Mt Albert and Māngere, a supermarket and on the side of the road — health authorities, the law and order community, the Wellington bureaucracy, the media and presumably ministers have known Covid is being spread predominantly by criminal gangs.
Journalists have asked ministers and health bosses to confirm it, but inquiries have been deflected.
Instead, the previous practice of giving Covid clusters identifiable descriptions — Bluff wedding cluster, Rosewood Rest Home cluster, Birkdale social network cluster — has been dropped for "privacy reasons".
On Wednesday, when health authorities finally admitted criminal gangs were a major vector, the Ministry of Health announced there were "15 epidemiologically linked subclusters" and "14 epidemiologically unlinked subclusters" but with no further detail of their location, scale or connecting factor. "Waikato Mongrel Mob" cluster might offend delicate Wellington ears.
At the same time, Wellington bureaucrats began granting travel privileges to gang bosses that they refuse to ordinary citizens wanting to hold the hands of spouses, parents or grandparents passing away. The gangs deny the new privileges have been used to open new supply lines.
That is probably true. Wastewater testing confirms the methamphetamine trade continued largely unmolested by the authorities even through level 4. A couple of new distribution channels might be nice but wouldn't add much to the business.
There is nevertheless method to this madness. Jacinda Ardern has said or implied — her words now so lack meaning that it is difficult to say which — that New Zealand won't return to anything like normal not just until over 90 per cent of those eligible have been double-jabbed, but until 90 per cent of every demographic has been.
The good news is that a majority of every eligible demographic has received their first jab or soon will. The majority of any group you can think of is doing the right thing. But the demographic with the largest minority that is slow on the uptake is people aged 20-34, and Māori in that age range in particular.
With Covid here to stay, you will not be going on holiday this summer unless 90 per cent of those groups are vaccinated.
Drug use is most prevalent in the 20-34 year age group and probably — although the data is lower quality — among Māori in that group. Younger people and Māori are least willing to deal with health authorities and the state — more so if they know they have methamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA or cannabis in their blood. Yet anyone who uses drugs in New Zealand is connected with and known to the criminal gangs, whether they are aware of it or not.
With Ardern's inexplicable decision to liberalise restrictions just as cases are rising, prominent scientists and modellers fear that New Zealand is heading to a Victoria-style outbreak. If that happens, current or greater restrictions will continue until at least the end of November and perhaps into next year.
Sickeningly, it is the criminal gangs who know best about distribution to the hardest-to-reach parts of the 20-34 age group, and persuading them to stick things up their noses and into their arms.
The Wellington bureaucracy will always fail to get those groups to comply. The gangs have better methods of persuasion, including to force compliance with lockdown rules.
The number of Covid cases over the next 14 days and the 20-34-year-old vaccination rate by the end of the month will thus depend materially on the gangs doing their thing.
It is a revolting form of extortion, but your job, your business and whether you get a summer holiday now depend on the gangs' efforts to persuade their stakeholders to obey the rules and get double-jabbed.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.