A police search for a missing man ended in the discovery of an established methamphetamine laboratory hidden in a camouflaged hut in remote Northland bush.
Officers trekked into the steep bush area on the fringes of Russell State Forest off Nelson Rd, near Hukerenui, after the alarm was raised when police received a missing person's report early on Saturday morning.
Acting Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Dalzell said family of the 52-year-old man told officers he had not been seen since going into bushland in Russell State Forest last Wednesday night.
His vehicle was found at a property on the outskirts of the bush.
Dalzell said the Search and Rescue and other specialist police groups were swiftly called out to the forest to try to locate the man, and during their search, officers found a methamphetamine laboratory, camouflaged in a hut in the forest.
Police said the hut was well hidden and had clearly been used to manufacture methamphetamine.
A specialist clandestine team from Environmental Science and Research, in Auckland, were at the lab and collected evidence from the hut.
Officers seized items in the hut as well as a quad bike found near the hut, and the vehicle found near the property.
When asked about the quantity of chemicals found in the remote location Dalzell said "a bit of effort was required to get it out of there". He was unable to say how long the lab had been operating.
A scene examination in the remote location was completed on Monday.
"On Sunday police located the 52-year-old man and he is assisting us with our inquiries into the clandestine methamphetamine lab," Dalzell said.
"The impact methamphetamine has on the community cannot be denied. It has the ability to destroy families and lives, and the desire to obtain the drug is a driver of a lot of crime and harm in our communities."
Dalzell said the discovering of the lab and being able to ensure it was not used to manufacture drugs in the future was a great result and the investigation was continuing.
The discovery of the established lab in the bush comes nearly five years after police uncovered what remains New Zealand's largest meth factory in Northland in 2014.
Ringleader and Whangarei gang member Brownie Harding was sentenced to 28 years jail after police arrested him for supervising the production of 6.5kg of methamphetamine.
It is the largest single case of meth manufacturing to have reached New Zealand's courts.
Two of Harding's teenage sons were also charged by police, who began investigating a tip about members of the Head Hunters' East Chapter in Auckland operating a meth factory at Taipuha, southwest of Whangarei.
Police raided a methamphetamine lab, resulting in 14 arrests. No one was found at the house but police believe at least $3 million of methamphetamine had been "cooked" there.
Northland was also the gateway to the biggest importation and seizure of methamphetamine by police. Police recovered 494kg of methamphetamine on June 19, 2016, some of it buried in dunes behind Ninety Mile Beach, but the majority, 448kg, from a campervan at Totara North.
The haul had an estimated street value of almost half a billion dollars.
Results for nationwide wastewater testing released in May this year, which covered about 80 per cent of New Zealand's population, including testing at Whangarei and Kerikeri wastewater treatment plants, in Northland an estimated 1100mg of methamphetamine was used in one week per 1000 people.
That was well up on the next highest rates - 990mg per 1000 in the Eastern District, 800mg in the Bay of Plenty and 780mg in Auckland.
To try and help the growing number of people using methamphetamine the Te Ara Oranga project, a joint initiative between the police and the Northland DHB, was created in September 2017.
In the most recent budget the project received a further $4 million over four years.
Northland District Health Board chief executive Dr Nick Chamberlain said the funding was good news, especially for communities at the forefront of methamphetamine harm.
"We acknowledge that addiction is a community issue, and have proved that having a suite of services tailored to each patient, while also offering whanau support, makes this programme of treatment and Te Ara Oranga work," he said.
Between August 2018 and March 30, 2019, police made 99 arrests, executed 79 search warrants, issued 29 Reports of Concern for 76 children, seized 30 firearms and referred 305 people for treatment.
Northern Advocate records show that in 2000 no meth labs were found by police in Northland. That rose to 18 labs in 2002, 23 in 2003, and dropped slightly to 16 in 2005. It rose again in 2005 to 20 labs.
The 2018 Te Ara Oranga evaluation report highlighted insights into the need for health services, the value of screening at the point of first contact, and having community co-ordinators as an essential point of engagement with whanau and communities, he said.
Meanwhile DHB meth-focused clinicians have been managing 803 cases since August 2017.
NZ Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell has hailed Te Ara Oranga as one of the potential answers to Northland's, and the country's, high rate of meth use.
"Previous studies ... confirm that methamphetamine use in Northland is higher than any other part of the country," he said. "It's the easy availability of meth in Northland, combined with social issues - poverty, high unemployment, particularly among youth, lack of housing - that are behind the high use," Bell said.