Amid the despair of New Zealand’s methamphetamine crisis, a collaboration between police and health workers is a shining light of hope. And yet its future is uncertain.

Dawn was almost breaking when police crept into place around the rundown Kaitaia house.

Through the gloom, they could just make out the wire-topped fence surrounding its perimeter. Intelligence analysts had identified two targets at the property. Both were alleged methamphetamine dealers.

On the signal, constable Nathaniel Blair went over the fence. As he climbed, he saw a fellow officer wince in pain. The wire had delivered an electric shock. More police ran past, busting into the house from both sides, kicking down both the front door and the ranch slider, while shouting to the occupants inside. Both targets were there, and so were their grandchildren, asleep in the next room.

Police searched the house, finding weapons and drugs. After the scene was secured, Blair drove back to police station with one of the arrestees, Linda Robson, a Māori woman in her 50s. On the way he got her talking.

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"I asked if she wanted help with her addiction," Blair said. While Robson was slightly surprised, she said yes almost straight away. "There wasn't a lot of hesitation there. I think she knew she needed to change."

Blair is part of Whangārei's methamphetamine harm team, one part of a collaboration with the local health board named Te Ara Oranga. Since 2017, the team has been trialling a new way of working. Usually, that doesn't involve kicking down doors, but focuses on getting addicts into treatment instead.

The week of the raid on Robson's house in June 2018, police arrested 22 alleged methamphetamine dealers in towns across Northland. The arrests made headline news. But the meth team also referred more than 100 users to treatment. During the Operation Ghost investigation process the intelligence officers had worked the entire supply chain, not only identifying the dealers, but tracking down anyone else who messaged the targets' phones as well.

Over three months, the analysts sourced information about the potential users - finding who they lived with, or how many children they had. They typed up the profiles, and then matched each to a member of meth harm team - ideally an officer with a similar background, or common interests, someone they'd find it easy to talk to. During the June raids, the team went doorknocking. Every afternoon, they'd start with the immediate neighbours, to see if any of them had been sucked into the web, and then move on to the suspected users in each town.

Linda Robson, left, talks with constables Karen Edwards and Nathaniel Blair from the meth harm team during a home visit. Photo / Mike Scott
Linda Robson, left, talks with constables Karen Edwards and Nathaniel Blair from the meth harm team during a home visit. Photo / Mike Scott
Constable Nathaniel Blair offered Linda Robson help with her addcition. She's nearly a year clean. Photo / Mike Scott
Constable Nathaniel Blair offered Linda Robson help with her addcition. She's nearly a year clean. Photo / Mike Scott

"Each person was called an 'opportunity,'" says Renee O'Connell, the detective sergeant in charge of the team. "We want to let them know we're not judging them. It's all about getting those people to be seen by the [clinicians] for an assessment and they hopefully they follow it through."

By the end of the first week of Operation Ghost they had 14 people sign up for treatment, including some of those now facing charges.

In Wellington, Te Ara Oranga was hailed at Police National Headquarters as a huge success.

From enforcers to evangelists

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The premise behind Te Ara Oranga is simple - work together. Police refer users to the Northland District Health Board's addiction services, either during arrest or where they come across users but choose not to lay a charge. The health board contacts clients within 48 hours, and then stays in contact until the client is seen by a clinician.

Community navigators act as liaison between whānau and services, and provide extensive support, particularly for those who are 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 project was initially conceived as a way to deal with a spike in domestic violence incidents across Northland, many fuelled by meth. In the past decade, meth has swamped the justice system, the number of convictions tripling to 4500 each year. Meth now makes up nearly half of all drug-related charges, well outstripping prosecutions for either cannabis use or supply - with half those for possession or supply. And yet the drug is more available than ever, particularly in vulnerable communities like Northland.

Te Ara Oranga was allocated $3 million from the Proceeds of Crime Fund, and draws on resources from the health board, police, local iwi and community groups. The funding has helped pay for things as varied as new detox beds in Dargaville; free fridge magnets for families about the meth cycle; and pioneering wastewater testing to measure meth consumption.

Initially, the partnership seemed like a somewhat unlikely alliance. Clinician Jewel Reti, the project manager on the health side of the project, admits she was one of those who came to the table with some strong reservations.

"I'm Māori so my personal experience of police is not a positive one," she said. "But as time went on and I could see the people, and that they were human like me, and they had a job to do, and we were focused on the outcome, those reservations went."

Te Ara Oranga's project manager for Northland DHB, Jewel Reti, said it took everyone a while to warm up to the idea of working together. Photo / Mike Scott
Te Ara Oranga's project manager for Northland DHB, Jewel Reti, said it took everyone a while to warm up to the idea of working together. Photo / Mike Scott

Reti was part of the panel interviewing for the police team. She said she looked for officers who weren't judgmental.

"There's a lot of stigma attached to methamphetamine, and stigma is a barrier to treatment. You want people who can see people or who they are rather than what they do."

The successful candidates had a variety of backgrounds, from community work to organised crime. Their office - the former HR room at the Whangārei Police Station - is covered in diagrams of chemicals used in clan labs, dealer's mugshots and some posters from the TV series The Wire. Police vests hang on a rack by the door, worn over the officers' civilian clothes only when they go out on visits.

At first they felt a bit like evangelists. More used to kicking down doors than knocking on them, they took a bit of settling into the new mindset. To help, O'Connell arranged training in motivational interviewing. The officers want to encourage users to think about the impact of their addiction - questions like "what will happen if you don't stop?" and "what were you like before?"

"It's personally a different way of working," O'Connell says. "Like a lot of our staff, I've been on the enforcement side. And now we've shifted from enforcement to prevention."

If general duties police officers spot drug paraphernalia during an unrelated call, they will pass on the information to the meth harm team for follow up. Photo / Mike Scott
If general duties police officers spot drug paraphernalia during an unrelated call, they will pass on the information to the meth harm team for follow up. Photo / Mike Scott
Meth addicts quickly find themselves in a cycle of binge-and-crash. Te Ara Oranga distributed fridge magnets to explain the cycle to families, helping them to recognise it. Photo / Mike Scott
Meth addicts quickly find themselves in a cycle of binge-and-crash. Te Ara Oranga distributed fridge magnets to explain the cycle to families, helping them to recognise it. Photo / Mike Scott

The officers' biggest challenges are often explaining to addicts how they found out about their drug use. Frequently, the intel is from front-line staff who attended a domestic violence incident and found drug paraphernalia, and then passed the information on.

"When we arrive at the address, they're not aware that information has been forwarded to our team," Constable Karen Edwards says. "We almost have to tiptoe around things, but then we're there for a reason so we do have to be straight up with them."

Most people are fairly suspicious, and many ask for a lawyer or tell the police to leave. But persistence can pay off. One success story was a solo mum lured into dealing by the gangs. It's a common trick - gangs know many users don't want the risk of buying from the criminal underworld - so they target vulnerable women, get them addicted and employ them as dealers to fund their habit. The woman - named Ms C - was initially very anti-police. But eventually home visits convinced her to sign a referral form, and she began counselling, with the intention to enrol at Odyssey, a treatment programme.

As of March 2019, the meth harm team had completed more than 300 such referrals. The health board had referred an additional 500 users after screening in the emergency department. Reti says around 20 per cent of all addiction clients now are meth users - up from 5 per cent before the project - many who would never have self-referred, and some who otherwise were headed straight for jail.

Inspector Dean Robinson of the Whangarei police was part of the initial Te Ara Oranga steering group. Photo / Mike Scott
Inspector Dean Robinson of the Whangarei police was part of the initial Te Ara Oranga steering group. Photo / Mike Scott
Inspector Justin Rogers (right), joined Northland District Health Board's Ian McKenzie to explain the Operation Ghosts raids to journalists. Photo / Mike Scott
Inspector Justin Rogers (right), joined Northland District Health Board's Ian McKenzie to explain the Operation Ghosts raids to journalists. Photo / Mike Scott

Clearing the cloud of the pipe

After clients sign a referral, they work with the pou whānau navigator - who helps with access to services or questions from family - and a clinician. In Kaitaia, one of the clinicians is Robin Oxborough, a former domestic violence counsellor with a strong kaupapa Māori ethos.

Much of his work is assessing whether addicts are ready to make a change. He refers to his clients' attitudes as seasons - and he wants them to be "in the springtime", ready for the weeding out of bad ideas and habits, and preparing for new growth.

"I suppose if you're looking at it from a counselling perspective, I'm supposed to sit in an office and talk these people back from the edge," he says. "I'm not sure whether I actually do that, I do things a little bit differently."

Oxborough tries to help his clients find tangible things to connect with, including their Māori whakapapa. "Because methamphetamine is about that dopamine rush, a high beyond anything we can tap into in naturally, I'm just getting them in touch with real life."

Activities include workouts, jamming on a guitar or fishing. At Tokerau beach on a windy day in January, the Herald meets Oxborough out long-lining with two clients - Taniora Motu and Malcolm Potini. In a twist of fate, it turns out Motu is the husband of Linda Robson, the second target arrested alongside her last June. He has been working with Oxborough for six months, and says he loves it.

"Everything that he brings out in you was always there, it's just sort of so clouded in the pipe and you forget who you are, where you came from," Motu says. "But working with Robyn has been quite amazing, you know it's back to the person I knew before and just really cool."

By his own account Te Ara Oranga counsellor Robin Oxborough, right, does things a little differently. Photo / Mike Scott
By his own account Te Ara Oranga counsellor Robin Oxborough, right, does things a little differently. Photo / Mike Scott
Oxborough, centre, says his focus is to get addicts to reconnect with real life. Photo / Mike Scott
Oxborough, centre, says his focus is to get addicts to reconnect with real life. Photo / Mike Scott

Oxborough says it's good Te Ara Oranga helped recognise the importance of trying different things, and it's clear he finds the job immensely rewarding. However, despite the positives, he says there's still not enough clinicians in Kaitaia, and waitlists for residential rehab are too long - at least three weeks if not worse.

Further, Oxborough says, problems known to drive addiction - poverty and its cousin hopelessness - are deeply entrenched in the north, and meth is but a symptom of that.

"You've got to ask - what's going on in these people's lives? They've got no jobs, they're struggling. While for a businessman he's using it to be more productive, for the beneficiary they're using it to get out of their existence."

"We can't arrest our way out of it"

Shortly after Operation Ghost - the raids where Robson and Motu were arrested - Te Ara Oranga received its first evaluation report. The feedback was glowing. Already, the programme was the poster child for meth harm reduction, and there was talk of a national rollout. However, in October that same year, the programme was refused permanent funding. Instead, it was granted a six-month extension. In March this year, it got $1m for six months more. At the time of publishing, its future is uncertain.

On the face of it, the current Government is making the kind of noises the purveyors of Te Ara Oranga want to hear. In December, it quietly decided to write current police discretion around charging drug users into law. It specifies police should not prosecute users where a therapeutic approach would be more beneficial - exactly the approach the meth harm team are taking. In March, the Misuse of Drugs Act Amendment Bill had its first reading.

But while the shift will represent the biggest shift in New Zealand drug policy since the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1975, that hasn't translated into cash. Just $16m was attached to the policy, in comparison to the $300m awarded for 1800 new police officers six months earlier.

"The problem is, politicians don't feel like they have the social licence to take the health approach," Drug Foundation chief executive Ross Bell says. "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 platitudes from those families who are affected."

He said the Government needed to fund programmes with good evidence.

"And you are getting that with Te Ara Oranga - that health referrals work."

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell is hopeful extra treatment funding will be announced in this year's Budget. Photo / Mike Scott
New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell is hopeful extra treatment funding will be announced in this year's Budget. Photo / Mike Scott

Those at the centre of the programme didn't want to get political. But their faith in their work is clear. Almost every one 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. They think you've committed a crime and you should pay for it but actually, there's another way," Jewel Reti said.

"If you think about the cost, if they stop offending, and address their issues, it's a no brainer. 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."