After losing a 20-year fight against methamphetamine, New Zealand is gripped by a second wave of the epidemic.
Reporting: JARED SAVAGE & KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Visuals: MIKE SCOTT
Design: Rob Cox; Graphics: Phil Welch; Editor: Chris Reed
Made with the support of NZ On Air
WHEN THEY finally caught her, Linda Robson felt relief.
On a pitch black winter morning, armed police smashed the razor-topped fence circling her Kaitaia home then booted in the front door. Linda’s only thought was for her grandchildren, asleep in the next room. “It was scary, it happened so fast and there were heaps of police … I didn’t know if my babies were okay.”
The 51-year-old was charged with possession and supply of the Class A drug, crimes that could result in life imprisonment.
It wasn’t Linda’s first arrest. But as she sat in the back of the squad car on the way to the station, Constable Nathaniel Blair turned and surprised her with a question: “Do you want help with your addiction?”
Linda, who had been smoking meth for 13 years, didn’t hesitate. “I was so tired of looking over my shoulders all the time,” she says. “In hindsight I was totally sick of it. I was sick of everything. I was sick of smoking the shit, I was sick of the reputation that I made, I couldn’t live a life.”
She looked back at Blair with newfound respect.
“Yes,” she said.
NEW ZEALAND has tried for 20 years to curb its methamphetamine crisis. At every step we’ve failed. At first, we were too slow to act, too complacent. Then we threw good money after bad, focussing on supply, when the real issue was demand. Repeatedly, we ramped up enforcement, clogging courts and jails, even as evidence showed it wasn’t working. At the same time we stigmatised sickness and failed to fund enough treatment for those who needed help.
Now, as a result of those choices, the country is swamped by the second wave of a meth epidemic. Huge hauls of the drug arrive on our shores every month. They still come from China, a longstanding base for major manufacturers. But increasingly, major shipments originate from Mexico, its cartels capitalising on our captive and highly lucrative market.
The product is getting purer and easier to find. In some parts of New Zealand, meth is cheaper than marijuana. Deals are done on street corners, in parks, even at work, with most addicts able to score in under an hour. Inflation hasn’t touched meth, the price of a point (0.1 of a gram) unchanged from a decade ago.
Once a party drug for the rich, surveys show meth is now more likely to be used by the poor. Its hooks are deepest within isolated, rural communities, where it poisons not just addicts, but their families, friends and children, costing the country a million dollars in social harm every single day.
Three-quarters of those in rehab centres are addicted to meth. Yet we persist in responding by funnelling money into enforcement but barely funding treatment, even when the political rhetoric has shifted to talking about “health”. Worse, recent moves to ramp up penalties for synthetic cannabis has experts worried we are repeating our mistakes.
“We haven’t learned from our previous failures,” says NZ Drug Foundation chief executive Ross Bell. “We are always chasing our tail. But we can’t keep doing the same thing and getting it wrong, because meth is the number one drug and it is causing great harm.”
The Herald spent six months with users, recovering addicts and the people trying to save them. Click above to watch our powerful documentary.
METHAMPHETAMINE arrived in New Zealand in the late 1990s. The first red flags were rumours of extreme violence, detectives hearing murmurs of shootings and standovers caused by a new mystery drug. Soon, the whispers became a roar. The meth market had opened for business.
P as it was known at the beginning, short for Pure, hit the party scene like a tsunami, flooding Auckland’s clubs and quickly drowning out ecstasy as the stimulant of choice. By 2002, police cells and emergency departments were swamped with people coming down off meth. In 1996 police busted their first meth-making lab. By 2002 they were raiding 200 a year.
It was clear New Zealand had a major problem. But the warnings went largely unheeded, then-Police Association head Greg O’Connor told the Herald in 2016. In Wellington the focus remained firmly on heroin, a drug which all but disappeared with the demise of the Mr Asia syndicate in the 1980s. “It sort of caught New Zealand by surprise. The policies were way behind,” O’Connor said.
The Helen Clark Government didn’t act until late 2003, after William Bell had murdered three people at the Mt Wellington-Panmure RSA; after 18-year-old Ese Junior Falealii killed two more during a violent robbery spree; after Antoine Dixon cut the hands off two housemates with a Samurai sword before killing a stranger in a Pakuranga carpark. All were high on P. Meth was reclassified a Class A drug, giving police greater search powers and judges the ability to impose longer prison sentences. Cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of meth, was also regulated, making it harder to buy.
By then, however, it was too late. The meth crisis already overshadowed Mr Asia in every sense. P had shifted from a recreational party drug to an all-encompassing habit for too many users and, at the same time, had transformed organised crime in New Zealand forever. The booming meth market, where 30 $14 packets of cold medicine could be sold as $30,000 of cooked product, offered untold riches. Rival motorcycle gangs were driven to work together by power and greed.
Karl Goldsbury, a former dealer and addict, said money sucked him in, but power kept him hooked.
“It’s quite surprising, the people who want meth. It’s people from across all walks of life,” Karl says. “You’re feeding their dirty little secret, you know, you become like a god to them.”
Not even prison deterred him. After a second stint inside he started cooking to make even more cash. Eventually caught in 2012, his mother turned on the television news to see her son handcuffed in front of a blazing building.
Karl says it took at least two years of his 10-year sentence to admit he had a problem.
“I was greedy, I was selfish, no one could tell me what to do. I did it for money and the glory of getting whatever I wanted, when I wanted. I didn’t stop for one minute to think of whose kids or family I was wrecking.”
CLARK'S crackdown on pseudoephedrine-based medicine backfired. When it became harder to get locally, meth-makers turned their attention overseas. Asian crime syndicates, present in New Zealand since the 1980s but never big-time players, became central to the trade. Suddenly, huge swathes of over-the-counter cold remedy were being imported from China. The pink granules were smuggled in by every means imaginable, even disguised as the icing on biscuits. Seizures grew larger, but so too the volumes slipping past the border.
At the same time, criminal groups also started smuggling the finished product. In 2003, 3kg of meth was seized by Customs and police.Three years later, Operation Major found 96kg in tins of green paint. A second shipment contained 150kg of pseudoephedrine pills stuffed into cement plaster. Police were elated, only to find later they’d missed four earlier shipments from the same smugglers.
What was then the largest bust in New Zealand history, Operation Major didn’t even make a dent on the street price of P.
“There was a blip but it was short-lived,” Detective Inspector Bruce Good said at the time. “So we realised that when you take out a syndicate there's another person with just as much greed in their eyes to take their place.”
Good’s warning, highlighted in the Herald’s 2009 War on P series, revealed the depressing extent of the problem. Moral panic was already in full flight, in part because of the arrest of Millie Elder, daughter of broadcaster Paul Holmes, and her public addiction battle. But also because middle class victims of meth’s first wave were beginning to emerge from the fog, drawing the conversation from the dark.
Newly elected Prime Minister John Key took further action, banning pseudoephedrine-based products completely in his Methamphetamine Action Plan, despite critics warning it was a waste of time. Key also instructed enforcement agencies to work together and pledged to use assets seized from criminals to pay for more treatment.
Briefly, the plan seemed to be working. The amount of pseudoephedrine seized started falling from a peak of 1.2 tonnes in 2009.
But again the game changed. Smugglers began importing ephedrine instead, removing a step in the cooking process. Then, around 2014, they ramped up the amount of finished product they were bringing in, shipping unprecedented amounts. In June 2016 police stumbled across a record haul of 494kg of meth on Northland's 90 Mile Beach. Most was packed in bags left in an abandoned campervan. Another 50kg was buried in sand dunes. Since then, authorities have made almost routine discoveries of 100kg shipments.
"The legacy of the first wave was well-entrenched organised crime,” Greg O’Connor said in 2016. “And now, that organised crime has created this new market. We're having a second wave now.”
Three years on, New Zealand faces two additional threats: criminals deported from Australia who bolster the ranks of existing gangs or start new chapters; and the Mexican and South American drug cartels.
Since 2016 Customs and police have seen an upswing in imports from the Mexican cartels, shipped through the United States and Canada.
For nearly 20 years, New Zealanders have paid round $100 for a point of meth. It’s one of the highest retail prices in the world. And the cartels have taken notice.
At a wholesale level, 1kg of methamphetamine might fetch $1000 in Mexico and be worth $5000 when smuggled across the border into the United States. In New Zealand it’s worth $200,000.
To combat the threat, law enforcement here has strengthened ties with international counterparts such as the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
“This is a global business now," Police Commissioner Mike Bush told the Herald. "And it's a threat to our national security."
ADDICTS usually describe their first taste of meth as a euphoric high more incredible than anything they’d felt before.
Meth can be snorted or injected, but in New Zealand it’s usually smoked, the cloudy white crystals heated in a pipe and the vapour inhaled.
As the drug hits the brain, it stimulates the reward centre, releasing dopamine in an intense rush that lasts around a minute. The heart races, breathing quickens, the body sweats or shivers. A long high follows, often around eight hours, where users feel energised, invincible and very, very awake. That feeling, the intense pleasurable rush, is what most users are seeking, and what they want to get back to. The euphoria is what motivates addicts to do it again and again.
But the rush doesn’t last. During comedowns users become anxious, aggressive, paranoid and agitated, sometimes picking at invisible bugs crawling on their skin. They create open wounds known as “meth sores” which scab, then scar. Many users lose extreme amounts of weight. Life becomes chaotic, a cycle of binge and bust. Hygiene is forgotten, teeth rot. Once the dependence sets in addicts are perpetually exhausted, unable to get out of bed without a hit. But by then, their tolerance has grown. The drug has less effect, so they need more and more, but it does less, meaning the withdrawals grow worse and worse.
“The first time that I smoked meth it was like the best thing that ever happened to me,” says recovering addict Darnell Rumbal, 36. “It was mind-blowing. It was mind-opening. I felt like I could conquer the world. I felt like I had energy for days. It’s so hard to explain but it was the most amazing thing you ever did feel, but you never get that again.
“The last time I smoked it I felt horrible. My mind was scattered. I felt like I lost myself. I felt guilty. I felt suicidal. I felt horrible.”
For many users, meth has the additional impact of dulling their emotions. For some, this is a kind of high in itself, a release from the pain or trauma many are seeking to escape. Trauma is one of the main risk factors for addiction. Many users also suffer from poor mental health, loneliness, isolation, or have histories of childhood abuse and neglect.
For Lucy, daily meth use is a coping mechanism. Her parents were alcoholics. She has a head injury. And while the drug has cost her family and friends and is on the verge of ruining her relationship, she is unable to put down the pipe.
“I've tried counselling … but don’t feel like they understand when I tell them about some of my problems, that all of this happened before the drugs ... it's not actually the problem.”
In a bad week, she spends $150 a day on meth. She has a job, which is why we aren’t using her real name, but she is also $50,000 in debt. Meth rules her life, from the moment she wakes to when she falls asleep, if she sleeps at all.
“It's how I get up in the mornings. I'd make a coffee, and then I'd have a pipe, drink half my cup of coffee, have a smoke, get ready and go to work,” she says.
“I can't remember the last time I ate breakfast. I'm reliant on it physically, I feel like I can't focus, I struggle to get out of bed without it, I can’t deal with normal, everyday stress.”
Addiction is lonely. Outside work she associates only with people who smoke, none of whom she really trusts. She’s hoping to move towns, to get away from her dealers. She plans to go cold turkey with the help of her boyfriend, who got clean last year and is desperate for her to quit too.
“It hurts him a lot because he knows what it does to me. It’s real shit knowing you’ve hurt someone else. And he wants a family, I want a family. We can’t have that unless I get clean.”
ONE OF the secrets about methamphetamine is that, physically at least, it’s not difficult to give up. Hype in its early days created the myth that if users took one hit they were hooked for life, but it’s not true. Physical withdrawals last about two weeks and users don’t necessarily need medical help to detox. The hardest part is the psychological dependence. Users really have to want to quit, and many do not because that means facing the awful reality of their lives. Or, they try and fail because they’re unable to leave their lives behind. While addicts like Lucy have jobs, support and the means to make a new life, many users do not.
Kaitaia, in the Far North, is symptomatic of the type of community riddled with meth. In the drug’s second wave, it has taken root in poor, rural places, where users are vulnerable and looking for an easy means of income, or an escape. Linda Robson, for example, started dealing to pay her rent. Until then, she’d been living in a tent with her teenage grandchildren, struggling to make ends meet.
“When I was on the benefit and wasn’t on the game, I was lucky if we could have bread at the end of that week,” Linda says. “I felt so helpless that I couldn’t feed them sometimes. It was a horrible feeling. It was so lonely.”
With prior convictions, Linda struggled to get a job. When she did get work, it was minimum wage, for a few hours. Never enough.
“I saw dealing as a living for me. A lot of our people turn to crime to survive. That’s the only thing they know. They don’t have education to get a real job. Some of them can’t even read or write.”
That kind of poverty is everywhere in Kaitaia. Moana Erickson, community liaison for the charity Open The Curtains, sees it every day. Her work takes her to the poorest streets, arriving on doorsteps with a koha basket of fresh fried bread and an offer to help liaise with social services.
Moana takes us to homes with no carpet, no curtains. One house, a rental, doesn’t even have a working bathroom. There is never food, particularly in houses where the parents are users. Moana hates meth but doesn’t see it as the main problem in her town.
“I think that meth is just a symptom of poverty,” she says. “I think that when you’re really, really poor and you’re struggling to feed your family, there's not a lot of good things going on in your life anyway ... you know a bag of meth is going to make you feel good.”
We meet a grandmother looking after four grandchildren, their parents hooked on meth. When we return, a few weeks later, she has been charged with using and the children are in foster care. Story after story. Even when people want help, they don’t know where to find it. Waiting lists can be months-long. Rehab is out of town, in Dargaville or Paihia. The worst part for social workers in Kaitaia watching people go away to get clean, only to return to the same circle and begin using again.
Other communities have their own stories of limited progress mixed with frustration. In Kawerau, in the Bay of Plenty, raids last year cauterised the meth trade. Police targeted the local chapter of the Mongrel Mob, seizing drugs and firearms, and freezing property assets. In the three months afterwards, crime dropped by a third. A surge of people sought help with their addiction from local iwi Tuwharetoa.
Chief executive of Tuwharetoa’s social service arm, Chris Marjoribanks, has lived in Kawerau his whole life and never been more shocked than when he began hearing the stories of meth use. He’s seen families he grew up alongside prostituting their children to fund the P habits of older members of the whanau.
“I would never have believed it if someone else had told me those stories. It went much wider than that, some physical abuse that was really quite horrific,” says Marjoribanks.
The iwi alone was unable to deal with so many users. Marjoribanks lobbied for greater funding and collaboration between government agencies, as well as community groups such as Tuwharetoa. Yet it took more than a year to get a fulltime drug and alcohol counsellor for Kawerau. Marjoribanks says it’s not good enough to expect people to travel, for those outside the town to be making all the decisions.
"We know the families, we know the community. We see the impact of methamphetamine on a daily basis ... the deprivation in homes, lack of food, domestic violence, impact on our children.”
NEW ZEALAND'S drug policy has long been centred on a “tough on crime” approach. Like the rest of the developed world, this country signed up to the United Nations drug convention in 1988, and joined the consequential escalation of the War on Drugs.
John Key’s Methamphetamine Action Plan almost bucked that trend. While the rhetoric initially focussed on crime, by 2016 Key was making media statements about treatment, including the announcement of an extra $8.6 million in funding. However, when Key resigned later than year, the plan was quietly shelved. Instead, under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, the focus shifted to evicting beneficiaries from state housing because of meth contamination, justified by testing methods that were later proved flawed.
This February the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction released a landmark report. It found, as the Global Drug Commission had been saying since 2011, that the War on Drugs has failed and criminalisation does not reduce harm. It recommended more investment into treatment, urgently.
So far, the current Government is making noises about a health focus. In December, it quietly decided to write police discretion around charging drug users into law. The proposals specify police should not prosecute users where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial. The Misuse of Drugs Act Amendment Bill had its first reading in March, disguised carefully as a crackdown on synthetics. It is now with a select committee.
Little attention was given to the change, even though it will represent the biggest shift in New Zealand drug policy since the Act’s introduction in 1975.
The policy came with just $16m of extra funding. Much of that was allocated to response, not prevention, for example providing an emergency “surge” fund to communities experiencing a spate of overdoses or deaths.
Which raises the question: If addicts are kept out of jail, where do we expect them to go? Addiction services are underfunded and overloaded, with long waiting lists reported across the country.
Estimates say an extra 100,000 people a year could benefit from some kind of care. Demand for addiction services has increased 70 per cent over the last decade. Funding rose by 40 per cent over the same period.
Just 10 per cent of our $1.5 billion mental health budget goes to addiction each year. In comparison, last June the Government awarded $300m for 1800 new police officers. Most was allocated to organised crime, a decision even the police were puzzled by.
“The problem is, politicians don’t feel like they have the social licence to take the health approach,” says Ross Bell from the Drug Foundation. “They’re worried about looking soft on crime. But I can tell you, if they came out and doubled the treatment budget they would receive plaudits from those families who are affected.”
Bell wants two things to happen. Politicians must make decisions knowing they have social licence and the government has to fund programmes that are proven effective, to help people get clean when they are ready.
“I think one of the shitty things for a long time is when someone puts their hand up for help, we don’t provide it to them.”
THERE'S A beacon of hope in the former HR office at the Whangarei Police Station. The base for the meth harm team looks like a large cupboard. On the walls are diagrams of the meth use cycle, posters of chemicals used in meth-making labs and mugshots of the dealers locked up since this $3m trial started in 2017. The team’s hand-picked members are part of a wider group called Te Ara Oranga, a collaboration between the police, Northland District Health Board, iwi and community groups. It’s widely considered the most successful meth harm reduction programme in the country.
The premise is simple: work together. Police refer users to the health board’s addiction services. Those services promise to see clients within 48 hours. “Community navigators” liaise between whanau and services and provide extensive support, particularly to those stubborn about getting help. Funding also pays for two employment specialists in the Kaipara, who help clients into paid work, even when they aren’t fully clean.
The programme’s effectiveness is measured in several ways, including wastewater monitoring by government scientists. Described as “one large urine test”, it shows how much meth is being used in a given area.
Testing was expanded to 38 sites late last year, capturing 80 per cent of the population. Preliminary data from November, December and January reveals an average of 16kg of meth consumed each week, almost $1.4m worth every single day.
Linda Robson is among those to benefit from the new approach in Whangarei. After months of police surveillance, she was among 22 people arrested by Operation Ghost in three days of raids across Northland last June. All were offered help after being charged. But intelligence officers also profiled anyone buying from the dealers and, after the raids, the meth harm team went door-knocking. Users were matched with the most appropriate person from the seven-person team and asked if they needed help for their addictions.
“Each person was called an ‘opportunity’,” says Renee O’Connell, the detective sergeant in charge of the team. “We’re not judging them. It’s all about getting those people to be seen by the [clinicians] for an assessment and hopefully they follow it through.”
At first, the officers felt like evangelists. More used to kicking down doors than waiting politely outside, they took a while to settle in to their roles. They got advice on how to talk to users, how to make them think about the impact of their use. They use motivational interviewing techniques,questions like “what will happen if you don’t stop?” and “what were you like before?”. In their first year they referred 208 people for treatment, 39 from Operation Ghost alone. There were 67 referrals to the employment provider in the Kaipara and 23 people got jobs.
The programme was so successful, others want to copy it. In Taneatua, not far from Kawerau, Ngai Tuhoe have tried to get the Bay of Plenty DHB to run something like Te Ara Oranga, without success. They are now considering funding it themselves.
It is also valued highly by police. Last year, the team won a national award. Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, the officer in charge of fighting organised crime, said he would like to see it rolled out across the country.
“Of course we’re going to tackle organised crime, holding those groups and individuals accountable. But we’ve got to tackle methamphetamine from all sides,” Williams says.
“That’s why Te Ara Oranga is so special. You’ve got everyone working together to put real support in place for families and the community.”
And yet, after a one-year trial, Te Oranga has been forced into six-monthly funding cycles, its future unsure.
Asked about the funding issues, the health board’s project manager Jewel Reti sighs and repeats the unofficial Te Ara Oranga mantra: We can’t arrest our way out of it.
“It is hard for some people to get their head around.” Reti says. “But what did people do before this? Go to jail, reoffend, come out, start using again. If they come out of it and find employment, that’s reducing the cost to taxpayers right there.”
LINDA ROBSON has been clean for almost a year. Awaiting trial for possession and supply of meth, she was released on electronic bail to her daughter’s home in Whangarei. The meth harm team have visited twice, to check how she’s doing and to deliver the results of her drug tests: all clear.
“I’ve had challenges come into my square and I’ve felt proud of saying, ‘nah,’ it’s not worth it any more,” she says.
Counselling has helped. Past demons, the deaths of her parents and first husband, are no longer dulled by the drug, but dealing with the loss has made her stronger.
“I’m still finding myself. I didn’t like myself back then … I was an ugly person. And my grandkids, they didn’t like who I was then either,” she says. “But I can sit with them now and say, you can see the change in Nan, and they love me for that.”