After last month's Gluckman report, we can all calm down and carry on. But what was behind the "meth house myth" that the report debunked? And what happens now it's been dispelled?
It was one of Housing Minister Phil Twyford's greatest victories: last month's bombshell report from the country's top-ranked scientist, debunking the meth house myth.
"There's absolutely no evidence in the medical literature anywhere in the world, of anybody being harmed by passive exposure to methamphetamine at any level," said the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman.
That vindicated Twyford's long-running crusade against the meth-testing and cleanup industry.
In Opposition, Twyford had campaigned against a lack of regulation of methamphetamine testing and remediation, viewed by many as a rort. To their critics, the testers were self-interested alarmists, pushing up insurance premiums and running a witch hunt-like crusade on an issue none of us needed to fear: living in a meth-contaminated home.
Once Twyford got into power, he was swift to commission Gluckman to look into the science behind meth contamination.
Now the report is out, can we pause, touch and relax?
To answer that, it's worth looking at how we got to where we are now.
New Zealand has endured a confusing three-step approach to meth-testing properties, beginning with an extremely stringent or conservative regime, now seen as excessive, even bogus:
● August 2010-June 2017: The sole guideline was from the Ministry of Health, and intended to apply to ex-meth labs, an extremely conservative approach that was also applied to places where meth had been smoked, not made. The acceptable level, after cleaning, was deemed to be only 0.5ug (micrograms) of meth per 100 cm2 of surface area. That measure was derived from an Australian risk assessment report which also focused on ex-meth labs, not just meth-smoking places.
● June 2017: Standards NZ published NZS 8510: 2017, which raised the acceptable meth level to 1.5ug/100 cm2 but failed to distinguish between meth labs and meth-smoking places
● May 29, 2018: Gluckman report released, for the first time distinguishing between meth labs and dwellings used for meth smoking. It reached the bombshell conclusion that there was no evidence of any health risk in meth-smoking places and said there was "merit" in applying a much less stringent standard of 15ug/100cm2.
The May 29 report sparked immediate reaction — and one unexpected change from New Zealand's biggest landlord with 63,000 properties.
Housing NZ said it would apply Gluckman's findings immediately, abandoning the NZ Standard and applying the "no third-hand harm" bar set by Gluckman. That decision came after the state landlord had forked out $100 million over four years testing and cleaning up meth-contaminated places.
Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton said the standard should be relaxed. "It will be important that there is a single level that applies to all regulation including the update of the existing standard." His council would make a submission and hoped the Government moved quickly to review the situation.
The normally conservative Standards NZ said it was open to change in light of the Gluckman report and was "happy to engage" in the meth change debate.
Twyford vowed to shake up the meth industry. Now the past contamination standards had been debunked, Twyford didn't hold back: "I expect, pending Cabinet agreement, that there will be a public consultation document on meth regulations later this year," he said.
"There has been a widely held perception that the presence of even low levels of meth residue in a house poses a health risk to occupants. As a result, remediation to eliminate contamination has been an extremely costly business for landlords and an upheaval for tenants being evicted at short notice. No one is underplaying the social damage caused by meth, but there should be a scientific basis for what are acceptable levels of meth in the current New Zealand context, and remediation of houses should be proportional to the established health risks," Twyford said.
Read more: HNZ boss Andrew McKenzie apologises
Ross Bell, executive director of the NZ Drug Foundation, slammed the "out-of-control methamphetamine testing industry" which "caused unnecessary distress to tens of thousands of tenants in public and private housing and led to a scandalous waste of money. We never understood why the previous Government allowed this situation to get so out of hand."
The Real Estate Authority said estate agents must now tell potential buyers if a property has meth contamination levels of 15ug/100cm2 or above. Agents are not obliged to disclose results below that level unless asked, said the authority. However, that change did not alter past disciplinary findings.
And Housing NZ chief executive Andrew McKenzie this week apologised for the eviction of tenants for meth-related reasons, saying the agency had moved to a "zero eviction" policy.
POST-GLUCKMAN: WHAT NOW?
Twyford will undoubtedly use the public consultation process on meth standards this year to try to sanitise the sector.
"The new regulations will be made in the Residential Tenancies Act 2 which will be consulted on later this year and presented to Parliament next year," Twyford's spokesperson said this month.
Kris Faafoi, the Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, who is responsible for Standards NZ, will issue a report on the standard. That is likely to result in submissions being called for and perhaps wide consultation, resulting in that standard being relaxed, or at least a clear distinction being made between meth labs and meth-smoking properties.
But in the meantime, where does this leave the owners of New Zealand's 453,132 rental properties (as counted in the 2013 Census)? When testing and cleaning their properties, do they apply the conservative and now debunked NZ Standard, or the new Gluckman standard?
Peter Lewis, the northern area representative of the NZ Property Investors' Federation, told landlords on May 31 to taihoa.
"We need to wait until there are some Tenancy Tribunal and insurance company decisions before we alter our current processes. Keep doing whatever checks and testing that form part of your existing procedures until we get more light on this," he advised.
But a shakeup of the NZ Standard appears imminent.
Read more: Landlords welcome new meth report
Faafoi said, post-Gluckman: "I have discussed this with Standards New Zealand and they are going to review the process taken to arrive at the meth standard. Science does tend to move forward at speed so if there are improvements that can be made, that is appropriate."
A report would be issued, but Faafoi couldn't say whether that would be weeks or months away.
VICTIMS NOW VINDICATED?
None of this does much for victims of the meth-house rort.
Take the state house tenants who were evicted when meth was discovered in the homes they rented. Last week, Twyford was fairly intractable on compensation, even when the comparison was made with cow cockies who are in line for payouts after their herds were found to have the disease Mycoplasma bovis.
The new landscape also does little for those real estate agents who were hauled in front of the Tenancy Tribunal, Real Estate Authority complaints assessment committee or the Real Estate Agents Disciplinary Authority and prosecuted in meth cases.
John Waymouth, a barrister who has defended estate agents, wants "victim" agents acquitted because Gluckman was "a vindication of the actions of many innocent real estate agents who had been disciplined and penalised by real estate industry regulatory bodies."
Not so, says Auckland District Law Society president Joanna Pidgeon. The NZ Standard is still applicable, she says.
INSURERS INTRACTABLE: NO ACTION
Post-Gluckman, all New Zealanders with property insurance now appear to have been financial victims of meth hysteria, wearing the cost in rising premiums and excesses.
In December, New Zealand's biggest insurer IAG (NZI, AMI, State) told customers they would pay a higher excess on meth-related claims and would get nothing on contents contamination. All homeowner policies — not just those for rental properties — were affected by the change announced late last year, increasing the excess from $400 to $2500 for meth claims.
"This is to ensure homeowners are incentivised to make efforts to minimise losses by doing what they can to protect their homes," said IAG, citing an average of 60 meth-related claims a month, costing $14 million a year.
At the time, AA Insurance said it was seeing between two and six meth-rated claims a month, with an average cost of $15,000-$16,000 per claim.
So how did the insurers react post-Gluckman?
They didn't. None adopted the Gluckman recommendations and all are sticking with the conservative, now debunked standard.
On May 30, IAG NZ said it was "taking a keen interest in the latest report into meth contamination and will certainly feed into the review of the New Zealand meth standard that has been signalled by the Government. Our current policy coverage is in accordance with the standard so our approach will remain consistent with that. Given this, we will continue to work with our customers on a case by case basis should they have potential loss or damage to their property from meth contamination. If the standard changes as a result of the review, IAG will revise its approach at the appropriate time."
Amelia Macandrew, AA Insurance customer relations manager, said its policy aligned with official guidelines for meth contamination and would be adjusted if any new guidelines were issued. Claims now under way would not be affected, she said.
A Vero spokeswoman said: "We support any changes to the Ministry of Health standards that will reduce unnecessary claims and premium costs for our customers while ensuring the health and well-being of any customers who do have meth contamination damage.
"Due to the rise in claims costs for meth contamination in recent years, we updated our policies with more detail and cover limits around meth. This cover aligns with the Ministry of Health guidelines around acceptable limits so the cover available will adjust to any changes in those standards. We will need to review the report in more detail before making any decisions about changes to our cover.
"Vero will follow through with any existing claims where remediation is underway. Any claims in the assessment stage and any further claim will be assessed in accordance with current guidelines at the time."
A Tower spokesman said the standard had not changed and it continued to adhere to the current standard. He said it supported the view that the testing industry had been trying to capitalise on fear, and welcomed the release of the report.
Miles Stratford, of testing business Meth Solutions, criticised the report and challenged its findings, saying it had not taken overseas evidence into account. However, Dr Anne Bardsley, who did most of the work on the report, said overseas cases had indeed been examined.
RON'S REPAIR RAMPAGE
Auckland landlord Ron Goodwin's story is so preposterous that it hit British tabloid The Daily Mail after being published in the Herald last year: a $140,000 cleanup, his $500-a-week Whangaparaoa place trashed after it was used for meth smoking.
Last February, the mid-70s investor who owns 40 places said light fittings, curtains, architraves, wardrobes, cabinets, cupboards, doors, carpet, the stove and a new heat pump were dumped after his insurer Vero engaged its own meth-testing agency and paid for most of the work.
Some paint was even scraped down to bare timber to remove contamination.
So what does Goodwin say post-Gluckman? That the insurance-driven cleanup was a ridiculous over-reaction.
"I have always felt irked about the enormous remediation works and the cost because at the time I genuinely believed the testing criteria of 0.5 [micrograms] was insanely low. Subsequently, I felt the revised standard of 1.5 was still far too low."
He raised his concerns with the testing and remediation people.
"The whole thing was a great big rort!"
The Stanmore Bay house did need repairs because it was trashed — but not to the tune of $140,000.
"I thought then and still believe now that a level of 5 or 6 [micrograms] would be an appropriate standard. That would wipe out maybe 90 per cent of the remediation and cost. Some of the readings in my house were above that number.
"I could never understand why doors had to be removed and replaced, wardrobes thrown away, new stoves and heat pumps taken to the dump, all the carpets and vinyls uplifted and dumped and copious timber work in the house torn out and replaced. All that was necessary was a good, thorough wipe and clean with sugar soap — maybe only $5000 to $10,000 worth of thorough cleaning and retesting instead of $140,000."
But the P issue remains a huge issue for landlords and Goodwin has a second horror story.
"I had a male tenant in his 30s who started smoking P, which produces great senses of self-confidence and invincibility, aggressive behaviour and great physical strength. He went about smashing the windows and doors, then tore the stove out, lifted it up and threw it over the balcony to the level below. Then he went on a rampage down the street assaulting everyone in sight, beating up eight people before the police finally arrested him."
Now, Goodwin says he has learnt from experience.
"I do not want any tenant who smokes P, just the same as I do not want any tenant who smokes tobacco. These are highly irresponsible people. Someone else can have them as tenants."
GU CONSIDERS GLUCKMAN
Hamilton property investor Annie Gu regrets a $25,000 meth property remediation last year.
When she discovered meth had been used at her rural rented home on a 4ha block, she called in a tester, then had the house decontaminated.
In light of last month's Gluckman report, she wouldn't do it again.
"I made a claim to AMI and they paid out $25,000. But now I regret it. The tenants had just been using meth there, not making it. Spending that money was unnecessary. I should have just left it."
Friends had told her of the meth "scam" and financial links between testers and remediation businesses.
"These people, they play a game," she says of the meth testing and fixing sector.
"Next time, I'll just keep quiet," Gu says of situations where she discovers meth use at her properties.
"It's not big deal. It doesn't do harm to people if it's just been used in the house and not made there."