Fighting the Demon

For twenty years, New Zealand fought methamphetamine and lost.

Now, a Herald investigation has examined the impact of the meth epidemic from the inside - spending six months in communities ravaged by meth.

The documentary project, named Fighting the Demon, found a country gripped by the second wave of addiction; where users are punished but not helped; creating one of the most lucrative methamphetamine markets in the world.

"If you were to ask any significant trafficker what is the best market for meth ... they would say Australia and New Zealand," said Drug Enforcement Agency Canberra attache Kevin Merkel.

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A kilo of meth worth US$1000 in Mexico will fetch up to $200,000 in New Zealand, agencies told the Herald.

The massive mark-ups mean New Zealand is now a target of the world's most dangerous drug cartels - the South American gangs - as well as the Asian syndicates who've had a presence here for longer.

While smugglers once sent flu medicine to be "cooked" into meth, they now send the finished product.

The meth they traffic is stronger than ever and shipments are growing larger. Ten years ago, 100kg was a record bust for law enforcement. Now, it's almost routine.

In many places meth is easier to buy than marijuana. Most users can score within an hour. Deals are brazen. The most recent Illicit Drug Monitoring System report, from 2016, reported addicts more frequently buying on street corners, in parks, even at work.

Meth is a highly addictive drug that is most often smoked using a glass pipe. Photo / Mike Scott
Meth is a highly addictive drug that is most often smoked using a glass pipe. Photo / Mike Scott
Governments have repeatedly ramped up enforcement in an attempt to eradicate methamphetamine. It's now more pure and more available than ever. Photo / Mike Scott
Governments have repeatedly ramped up enforcement in an attempt to eradicate methamphetamine. It's now more pure and more available than ever. Photo / Mike Scott

The price of a point - around $100 for a 0.1g - is unchanged from a decade ago. But where "P" was once a party drug for the middle classes, in this second wave, its victims are most likely to be the poor.

Gangs target isolated, rural communities, and work to hook the vulnerable - young solo mums or teenagers seeking an escape.

"Meth is a symptom of poverty," said Moana Erickson from Kaitaia charity Open The Curtains.

"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."

The figures behind the drug are startling. Meth inflicts an estimated $500 million of social damage a year.

Open the Curtains community liaison officer Moana Erickson sees meth and poverty as interlinked. Photo / Mike Scott
Open the Curtains community liaison officer Moana Erickson sees meth and poverty as interlinked. Photo / Mike Scott
Darnell Rumbal is a meth addict in recovery now based in Kawerau. Photo / Mike Scott
Darnell Rumbal is a meth addict in recovery now based in Kawerau. Photo / Mike Scott

Some addicts reported spending up to $1000 a week. Tests on wastewater suggest we spend $1.4m on meth every day.

Not surprisingly some users fund their habits through crime.

For many it's dishonesty offences, such as theft and robbery. Others get into more desperate situations, racking up huge debts, dealing to survive, turning to prostitution - in some cases pimping their children for a hit.

Recovering addict Haydee Richards says meth turns you into a person you never thought you could be.

"It just destroys your soul, like it just sucks the life out of you. You're soulless, hollow, empty, no thought for anyone else because all your focus is on getting that drug, and that's a really shitty place to be."

New Zealand's drug policy has long centred on a "tough on crime" approach. In 2003, it was made a Class A drug, meaning dealing meth could see you jailed for life.

As a result, courts are clogged, and jails filled. Last year alone 4500 people were charged with meth-related offences, triple the number from a decade ago.

Karl Goldsbury is serving a 10-year sentence at Waikeria prison. Photo / Alan Gibson.
Karl Goldsbury is serving a 10-year sentence at Waikeria prison. Photo / Alan Gibson.
Nicky Goldsbury is the mother of convicted meth manufacturer and dealer Karl Goldsbury. Photo / Mike Scott
Nicky Goldsbury is the mother of convicted meth manufacturer and dealer Karl Goldsbury. Photo / Mike Scott

At the same time, demand for treatment has soared. Three quarters of those in rehab have issues related to meth.

Yet funding for treatment has lagged. In 10 years, the number of people seeking help from the health system has risen 70 per cent, but the increase in funding has been little more than half that.

Around $150m is spent on treating addiction each year, 10 per cent of the mental health budget. In contrast, the bill for prisons is $1 billion. Last year police were awarded $300m for new officers - half of them earmarked for fighting organised crime.

Customs staff based at the Ports of Auckland open up a container for inspection. Photo / Mike Scott
Customs staff based at the Ports of Auckland open up a container for inspection. Photo / Mike Scott

In December the landmark Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction report recommended more investment into treatment, urgently. Rehab centres were swamped. One estimate said 100,000 more people a year could benefit from therapeutic help.

"The criminalisation of drug use has failed to reduce harm around the world," the report said. It recommended criminal sanctions for possession should be replaced with treatment instead.

The Government is yet to respond.

Late last year, it introduced an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act, underwriting in law the police ability to send users for treatment rather than prosecution. It says it wants to treat drugs as a health issue.

However, the discretionary policy had just $16m attached, half for an emergency fund that can only be accessed after a crisis.

Health Minister David Clark said there was no doubt that methamphetamine and other drugs were causing serious harm in communities.

"The approach we have taken to drugs in New Zealand up until now has not worked," he said.

While Clark acknowledged addiction services had been underfunded, and the Government was committed to a better and more sustainably-funded health service, he refused to say if more money would be allocated in this year's Budget.

Health Minister David Clark is yet to respond the report of the Government inquiry into Mental health and Addiction. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Health Minister David Clark is yet to respond the report of the Government inquiry into Mental health and Addiction. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"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."

Nicky Goldsbury, whose son is serving a 10-year sentence for dealing, said without more education the situation would get worse.

"I hate meth. It destroys families. It's a heinous drug. And there's so much of it around and that's the saddest thing," Goldsbury said. "We can't bury our heads in the sand."

Darnell Rumbal, who used daily for almost 10 years, said the most important thing was to know there was a chance at recovery.

"That there is hope and that you can get out of this, and that no matter how dark and gloomy things look and how messy your life is ... you know you can come back from where you are now."