Two decades after meth first took hold, New Zealand has failed to curb the drug's popularity and the devastating social harm caused by addiction. New data from wastewater testing shows the burden is not shared evenly. Jared Savage reports.
Struggling rural towns are taking the brunt of New Zealand's methamphetamine crisis, according to a Herald analysis of national drug use data.
The analysis reveals that small regional centres with high levels of deprivation — including Kaitaia, Ōpōtiki and Wairoa — have been saturated by meth in recent years, recording weekly per capita consumption more than double the national average.
The Herald obtained two years of wastewater test results that police have used to monitor consumption of illegal drugs around the country since late 2018. The data provides an unprecedented snapshot of the scale and geographic spread of New Zealand's meth problem.
Two decades after P took hold here, the data shows, New Zealand has failed to curb its devastating popularity. Thousands of users collectively spend more than $500 million a year on the drug, fuelling a lucrative criminal trade, causing extensive social harm and putting enormous strain on communities.
Shipments of up to 500kg of meth are smuggled into the country by organised criminals including Asian syndicates and Mexican cartels, which then flood into towns and neighbourhoods that are often ill-equipped to cope with the health and social impacts of widespread addiction. But the burden hasn't been evenly dispersed.
Between 2018 and 2020, the figures indicate, the highest levels of meth use per person were in six deprived towns: Kaitaia, Ōpōtiki, Wairoa, Kawerau, Tokoroa and Huntly. Their residents consumed more than twice the national average of 4.11 grams per 1000 people a week.
Kaitaia recorded by far the highest single result in the two years of samples, with an average level of 17.4 grams per week per 1000 people between October and December last year. However, because wastewater in the 5900-population Far North town has only been tested since October, a police specialist said it was too soon to call it the "meth capital of New Zealand".
South Auckland was the only big metropolitan centre among the 10 worst-affected areas. The smaller cities of Whanganui, Rotorua and Whangārei also ranked in the top 10, according to the analysis.
The Herald used the Official Information Act to obtain test results collected by ESR scientists from 46 sewage treatment plants across the country, covering around 75 per cent of the population. Sampling the presence of drugs such as meth, MDMA, cocaine and heroin in the wastewater at these locations has become an important measure of national drug consumption.
Police and policy-makers are now using the wastewater data to decide where to allocate millions of dollars in funding for addiction treatment and support.
The geographic disparities in meth use are confirmed by other independent research and police data, which show that the drug is cheaper and easier to obtain in those struggling towns than it is in larger centres.
Compounding the problems, it is also harder for addicts in those places to get help when they need it.
"Out of sight, out of mind," said Dr Chris Wilkins, New Zealand's leading drug researcher. "The decision-makers in Wellington are a long way from some of these places, where there is a lot of social deprivation.
"The services for health and drug treatment are really terrible in rural New Zealand," Wilkins added. "Often there is nothing."
"We see the impact of methamphetamine on a daily basis," said Chris Marjoribanks, chief executive of the Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau Hauora, an iwi-based health provider in Kawerau. "The deprivation in homes, lack of food, domestic violence, impact on our children."
The wastewater data is now being used to direct funding and support to iwi and community leaders in the worst-hit areas.
"Police know we cannot arrest our way out of addiction," said Detective Inspector Blair Macdonald, the manager of the drug intelligence unit that funds the wastewater testing project. "We have to work with other government agencies and community groups to address the wider social issues."
Macdonald said the data clearly shows that smaller communities, often in rural areas with high unemployment, have been significantly more affected than urban populations.
Police intend to use the wastewater data to identify places that need more support and then to work with other agencies and community groups to provide opportunities for addiction treatment, employment and education.
"We can't forget that behind all these numbers — and the numbers are really interesting — are real people," Macdonald told the Herald. "Mums, dads, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters who have an addiction issue and it's really significant in these vulnerable communities."
The wastewater testing is part of a new police strategy implemented in 2019 which aims to reduce demand for drugs at the same time as investigating the criminal networks that supply them.
Referred to by police as the "Resilience to Organised Crime in Communities", the strategy has not been widely reported in the media until now, but was detailed in documents obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act.
One of those documents was a briefing to the Police Minister Stuart Nash, which said that organised criminal groups are feeding addiction and mental health problems through dealing drugs, particularly in regional communities.
In turn, this drives burglary and theft, because addicts often steal to fund their use, as well as violence in the form of "standovers" and "taxing", whereby criminals steal from each other by force. Increasingly, firearms are being used in drug-related conflict.
The harm being caused by the meth crisis is intertwined with family and sexual violence; child neglect; inadequate housing; poor health, education and social services; and a lack of employment, said the briefing paper. These negative socio-economic conditions make joining a gang or organised crime group more attractive to members of poorer communities.
"We can disrupt organised crime groups," the briefing said, "but if we do not address at the same time the impact of organised crime in our communities, the void will likely be filled again by more organised crime."
Last year, the Government committed $20 million from the Provincial Growth Fund to nine programmes in the regions hit hardest by methamphetamine, in Northland, the eastern Bay of Plenty, Hawke's Bay and Gisborne.
One recipient was Manaaki Tairāwhiti, a group of iwi and social agency leaders on the East Coast, which received $2.8m to help drug addicts recover and become "work ready". The funding for the Whakapono Whānau programme will help 350 whānau for the next three years.
Ronald Nepe, the co-chair of the group, said the financial support was much needed but insufficient. Manaaki Tairāwhiti's original application to the PGF had sought to establish residential treatment homes in isolated communities.
"There are none in the whole region of Tairawhiti, at all," Nepe said. "We've got a long, spread-out region… communities three hours away from Gisborne that are impacted as well.
"We've known for a long time that meth is a huge issue for us. The feedback from the community was that we needed residential beds [for treatment] but unfortunately, we weren't funded for that. So we will put together another business case."
Wilkins, the drug researcher, said it was completely unrealistic to expect drug addicts to travel for 30 minutes to attend a rehab meeting, let alone three hours.
"They don't have money, they might not have a car, there's no public transport," he said. "On the other hand, the public expects them to get a job, look after their children, everything else. It gets too hard."
For years, Wilkins has coordinated research on the drug habits of New Zealanders and was among the first to push for wastewater testing.
The wastewater data backs up his own research published in 2018 which showed methamphetamine was cheaper, and easily available, in the regions.
Wilkins said that, while solutions are not easy, decision-makers in Wellington now have sufficient information to target resources to the right areas.
"People in small towns would say to me 'we've got a big meth problem'," Wilkins said. "But it was hard to convince health officials, or even the police sometimes. And sometimes residents don't want to admit they live in this 'meth town'."
"The treatment services we've got are naturally concentrated in cities. It's not enough, we need to double them, and put them where needed in these smaller places."
Wilkins also praised efforts by police in some places to refer drug users to clinical help instead of laying criminal charges, such as the Te Ara Oranga partnership with the Northland DHB.
Police took a similar approach in Kawerau in 2018. During Operation Notus, detectives identified about 600 methamphetamine users in the town of 6000. They arrested members of the Mongrel Mob, including the local president Frank Milosevic, and convicted them of large-scale supply of meth, but also encouraged users to get help.
In the weeks after the raids on the gangs, more than 60 people walked off the street into the office of the Tuwharetoa Health Education and Services Trust. But the iwi was swamped. It took more than a year of negotiations with the Bay of Plenty DHB to approve funding for one alcohol and drug counsellor to be based in Kawerau.
The moment was lost. Kawerau is still among the towns worst affected by methamphetamine, on a per capita basis. There has been some cause for hope with rates trending down in recent months, but "we're not popping the champagne just yet", said Marjoribanks of the Tūwharetoa service.
More funding is needed, Marjoribanks said, along with collaboration between government agencies and community groups: "We're working in a completely different way with the police now, it is no longer punitive. It's about reducing demand. And the key to that is education, housing and employment."
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