- Customs and police seize 1777kg in record-breaking year.
- Despite disruption in supply chain, price plummets to new low.
- Wastewater testing shows New Zealanders spend $1.4m on meth each day.
More methamphetamine was seized in New Zealand in 2019 than any other year- nearly double the previous record over 12 months.
The most recent data collected by law enforcement, to the end of October 2019, shows investigators from Customs stopped 1169kg of the Class-A drug at the border.
The combined total of 1777kg makes 2019 the first calendar year in which more than a tonne of methamphetamine has been seized.
It is also an 87 per cent increase on the previous record year - 941kg in 2016.
To put that in perspective, 3kg was seized in 2003 when methamphetamine was reclassified as Class-A following a spate of high-profile crimes linked to the drug.
The flooding of the market has led to a marked drop in the national median price of $500 per gram, or a record low of $450 in Auckland, Waikato and Wellington, according to new research by Associate Professor Chris Wilkins.
In 2011, the median price was $700 a gram.
While the record-breaking seizure of 1777kg of methamphetamine was the result of dogged targeting of organised crime, this came at the same time the Government and senior judges took a gentler approach towards methamphetamine addicts.
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In August, the Misuse of Drugs Act was changed to reinforce the existing discretion of police to decide whether someone should be prosecuted for personal possession of drugs.
Before any charges are laid, the police must now consider whether there is a "public interest" in someone appearing before the courts on minor drugs charges.
The shift to a "health based" approach to illicit drug consumption was hailed by drug law reform advocates, such as the Drug Foundation, as a positive step which will make it easier for people to seek help without fear of being punished.
This was followed by a landmark judgment by the Court of Appeal released in November.
New Zealand's meth crisis was starkly outlined in the 103-page judgment which will redefine how judges will sentence those before the courts on methamphetamine offences.
Until now, the quantity of methamphetamine was the most significant factor in setting a starting point for sentences.
While the weight of the Class-A drug will still be important in sentencing, judges now have more discretion to take into account whether the individual is a kingpin making millions of dollars, or a street dealer.
Those dealing commercial amounts of methamphetamine in excess of 2kg still face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
But meth dealers sitting lower in the supply who can prove their own addiction caused their drug offending could have their sentences cut up to 30 per cent, while poverty and deprivation of a drug dealer are now to be considered as potential mitigating factors.
Lawyers and judges have been urged to take advantage of a little-known legal clause to postpone sentencing hearings so offenders can attend rehabilitation programmes and possibly avoid jail.
There is little doubt there is strong demand for the drug across all regions of New Zealand.
According to police analysis of wastewater testing - described by scientists as "one large urine test" - New Zealanders spend nearly $1.4 million on methamphetamine every single day. That's 16kg a week.
"The wastewater data suggests that there is a strong market across New Zealand for methamphetamine, with it being found in all communities tested and found on every single day of testing," Detective Superintendent Greg Williams wrote in an affidavit for the Court of Appeal hearing.
The single largest methamphetamine haul this year was 469kg, the most ever stopped by Customs at the border and the second largest in New Zealand history.
"I never thought I'd see the day we'd see this amount of drugs in one seizure," said Bruce Berry of Operation Manta, referring to the evolution of organised crime over his 36 years working for Customs.
"That record number is only a number. We can fully expect that to be surpassed in the future. The demand for meth is relentless."
However, the head of Customs investigations does not believe the increase in methamphetamine supply has been driven by an equal rise in demand.
Rather, Berry says transnational organised crime groups have changed the traditional demand-and-supply model by supplying methamphetamine in bulk and "stockpiling".
The available drugs are then sold directly to buyers.
"Twenty years ago, you would have had an organised crime group in New Zealand who had a connection overseas and say 'send me a 1kg of meth' and they would supply the demand," says Berry.
"Now, we've got multi-national organised crime groups sending shore parties here to receive drugs in bulk, unpack and prepare for sale. They've cut out the middleman. And it's all about money."
Berry says Customs and the National Organised Crime Group, specialist police squads, work closely together and with international law enforcement, such as Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States.
This has led to large shipments of meth and other drugs being stopped at airports or ports overseas, or intelligence for foreign law enforcement to investigate suspects higher in the supply chain.
New Zealand is one of the most lucrative markets in the world for methamphetamine and cocaine, with the high prices attracting the attention of Mexican cartels in recent years.
The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels now compete with crime syndicates from Asia, in particular China, which have long been the main pipeline of methamphetamine, or its precursor ingredients, smuggled into New Zealand.
A kilogram of methamphetamine might sell for $1000 in Mexico or Southeast Asia, but fetch anywhere between $180,000 and $350,000 in New Zealand depending on the market.
For years, the most methamphetamine, also known as P or Ice, discovered in one shipment was 96kg hidden in the bottom of green paint tins in Operation Major in 2006.
Now, 100kg or more is almost routine.
The record-breaking years of 2016 and 2019 are skewed by staggering discoveries of 501kg and 469kg respectively.
In August, the final chapter in the saga of the 501kg found on 90 Mile Beach- the largest amount in New Zealand history - ended with the last sentencing of those arrested.
Many of those caught in Operation Frontia, or the sister investigation Operation Virunga, had been living in Australia for years or deported from there.
Hundreds of deportees from Australia, known as "501s" because of the section of the immigration law which allows people to be deported on character grounds, have been sent to New Zealand in recent years.
For several years, the police have warned of how these "Kiwis" would return to commit crimes and bolster the professionalism of the New Zealand underworld.
And it seems the two emerging threats of the Mexican cartels and the Australian deportees have become intertwined.
In recent raids on the Comancheros, an Australian motorcycle gang which established a chapter in New Zealand after members were deported, police alleged the gang were working with the Sinaloa cartel.
Organised crime syndicates see the lucrative markets of Australia and New Zealand as a "two-for-one" deal, because of the close proximity of the two countries.
"It is easy to believe that New Zealand is a little country and organised crime groups don't know who we are and don't really see us as a market. That myth is gone," says Detective Inspector Tom Fitzgerald, the police liaison officer based in Canberra.
"The easiest way to explain it is if it's Australia's problem, it's our problem . . . If you were setting up business in Australia and you saw a lucrative market over the ditch, three hours away, you would grab it."
Fitzgerald, who was interviewed as part of the Herald's feature-length documentary Fighting the Demon , works closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration of the United States.
"If you were to ask any significant trafficker what is the best market for meth and coke in the world, they would say Australia and New Zealand," said Kevin Merkel, who is based in Canberra as the DEA attache for the region.
"The same people that are pumping drugs out to the United States are the same ones that are pumping out drugs here. If they see potential to make more money, they're going to do it."
Fitzgerald and Merkel say the relationship has progressed in the past 18 months from sharing intelligence to actively working on operations together.
This co-operation will only grow stronger with the DEA opening offices in Auckland and Wellington, says Merkel.
"We can't do it by ourselves, Australia can't do it by themselves, New Zealand can't do it by themselves. Trans-national organised crime, by definition, don't do it by themselves. They don't see borders, they don't care about the laws. They've got historical connections across the world, that's why they've made literally billions of dollars in the drug trade," says Merkel.
"That's why we have to work together."
But law enforcement agrees solely targeting the supply chain won't solve New Zealand's meth problem and welcome a greater focus on education and health to curb demand.
Police officers have been involved in a groundbreaking programme, Te Ara Oranga , which sees police and health staff work together in Northland to treat meth addicts.
The pilot, which also featured in Fighting the Demon, secured $4 million in last year's Budget.
The funding is expected to help an extra 500 people a year with meth issues.
The cash boost for Te Ara Oranga is part of the Government's promise of an extra $1.9 billion into mental health and addiction, including $455m for frontline services.
Mega meth busts in 2019
• September: Police arrest three men, including an Australian, in Hamilton and Rotorua and seize 216kg of methamphetamine.
The National Organised Crime Group worked with Western Australia Police in Operation Ali, which also led to $100,000 cash, guns and vehicles being confiscated.
The National Organised Crime Group in collaboration with Western Australia Police launched Operation Ali earlier that month, investigating a group of individuals from Australia and New Zealand.
• August: Three men arrested after shipment from Thailand was searched by Customs officers when it arrived at the Ports of Auckland.
The shipping container held 60 electric motors, each hiding an average of 8kg of methamphetamine. The total of 469kg has an estimated street value of about $235 million.
• August: Two British men in Auckland were allegedly busted with more than 200kg of methamphetamine - worth about $144 million on the street market - after police targeted members of an international crime syndicate.
Police arrested a 60-year-old British man after raiding a central city apartment and allegedly finding a wardrobe full of cardboard packing boxes which contained methamphetamine.
The second man, 49, was arrested at the airport as he allegedly tried to flee the country.
• July: Two Australian men were arrested as Customs seized up to 100kg of methamphetamine with a street value of up to $50m.
The duo allegedly imported and possessed between 70kg and 100kg of methamphetamine, hidden inside plastic storage pallets.
Customs said the concealment method used was "quite sophisticated and not easily identifiable".
The search of the West Auckland home of one of the accused allegedly uncovered up to $50,000 cash, hidden inside a dishwasher and a backpack.
• February: Two men protested their innocence after allegedly trying to smuggle 110kg of methamphetamine and two handguns into New Zealand inside golf cart batteries.
The large quantity of "ice-like" methamphetamine had a street value of about $55m.
A Taiwanese national, 39, and a Chinese national, 27, were arrested by Customs over the seizure.