New Zealand's decade-long epidemic of methamphetamine use is finally winding down.
Preliminary results from a new Health Ministry survey, due to be released soon by Prime Minister John Key, show the proportion of New Zealanders aged 16 to 64 who had used the drug in the previous year has halved from 2.1 per cent, when the last survey was taken in 2007-08, to just 1 per cent.
Detective Senior Sergeant Chris Cahill told a seminar at Auckland University yesterday that the "dramatic drop" tallied with other data suggesting the epidemic peaked in the early 2000s.
Police busts of clandestine "P" laboratories peaked at 241 in 2006 and fell slowly to 180 last year, despite police pouring more resources into seeking the drug under a three-year "action plan" Mr Key began in 2009.
The three years end next month with police tentatively celebrating success.
"We detect that there has been a decline of methamphetamine users - certainly in new users, in mainly younger people taking up the drug," Mr Cahill said.
"I don't think methamphetamine is seen very much as a social drug any more, pretty much the opposite - it's an antisocial drug. I think society has done a pretty good job of demonstrating how harmful methamphetamine is," he said.
"I think that has worked. I think we are actually winning - fingers crossed!"
Drug Foundation director Ross Bell said the Health Ministry survey, taken between May and December last year, was "enormously significant".
"I don't think that can be over-exaggerated," he said.
Mr Bell said it could be credited to both police and customs enforcement work and an increase in addiction treatment funding from $90 million a year to $120 million a year under Mr Key's action plan.
Mr Cahill also said the fall in P's broader popularity meant the problem was now a hard core of addicts who still needed help.
"That is possibly where the emphasis on treatment is more important than ever."
The 2007-08 survey was the first one by the Health Ministry. Previous surveys by Massey University found that meth use among a narrower age group aged 15 to 45 peaked at 5 per cent in 2001, soon after the drug burst onto the scene in the late 1990s, and fell to 3.4 per cent by their last survey in 2006.
In separate surveys, Massey has found that meth use by a sample of 828 people detained in police cells in Whangarei, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch actually increased last year, from 29 per cent in 2010 to 38 per cent in the Auckland sample.
Massey researcher Paul Sweetsur and Mr Cahill both said this was probably a reflection of increased police targeting of meth users rather than a real increase in drug use.
But that survey also found that the drug is still readily available. Almost 75 per cent of the Auckland detainees, compared with 68 per cent in 2010, said it took them less than an hour to obtain it when they wanted it.
The median price of the drug quoted by the Auckland detainees also fell slightly, from $633 a gram in 2010 to $625.
Community worker Denis O'Reilly, who organised the seminar, said it was possible more meth was now being imported directly in forms that were difficult to detect, such as dissolved in water or other liquids, and less was being manufactured locally.
ON THE WANE
P use in NZ
* 2001: 5 per cent
* 2006: 3.4 per cent
* 2007-08: 2.1 per cent
* 2011: 1 per cent.