It’s one of New Zealand’s most damaging illicit drugs: and also among the toughest to quit.
Now, in a major new study, researchers aim to recruit hundreds of methamphetamine users to pin-point the best ways of breaking the chain of addiction.
While meth isn’t thought to be a highly prevalent substance – recent health survey data indicates about 1.3 per cent of the population used amphetamines recreationally in the past year – its devastating toll on users and their communities is well documented.
Each year, the scourge is linked to dozens of deaths, hundreds of criminal convictions and hundreds of millions of dollars in health and social harm.
How to treat those trying to escape and recover from it hasn’t been straight-forward for clinicians and support workers.
“There is no magic drug, no methadone or stop-smoking product,” said Associate Professor David Newcombe, a University of Auckland drug and alcohol researcher leading the project.
“And while we have a relatively well-trained workforce in the addiction and treatment sector, we are basing a lot of what we do in this country on overseas data.”
What was effective in the US or Australia, he said, didn’t necessarily guarantee success in an Aotearoa context.
Fortunately, a large proportion of people using meth referred by police to health services weren’t yet at the “severe end” of addiction, he said, making early intervention crucial.
“Once they’re screened and if they’re found to need more intensive treatment or intervention, then they’re referred onto community treatment agencies like Odyssey or the Salvation Army.
“But again, we really don’t know what works best. What are the predictors for success?”
The project, supported with a $1.2 million Health Research Council grant, would evaluate the effectiveness of counselling, admission to a rehabilitation centre or undergoing medical detox.
“What we know is lots of people try to give up, but abstinence doesn’t last long, and relapse is quite common.”
The control group would comprise people who use meth who weren’t planning to enter treatment.
All participants would be followed for two years.
Data would be gathered on indicators such as improvements in general wellbeing, physical and mental health, relapse and crime.
“We’ll also be running a qualitative study alongside where we will conduct in-depth interviews with people in treatment and ask what works for them, what doesn’t, and what isn’t being done, which hasn’t really been done before,” he said.
“We plan to follow up with these people after a year to look at their treatment trajectory.”
But what sets the study apart is its strong focus on Māori, who remain disproportionately affected by meth-related harm.
The NZ Drug Foundation’s latest State of the Nation report, for instance, shows Māori are nearly two times more likely to use amphetamines than non-Māori, with usage rates higher among men.
“We are targeting 50 per cent of our participants to be Māori, because we want to find culturally appropriate treatments.”
Newcombe said there was also Māori representation on the leadership team, including whaea Pamela Armstrong, who assists with postgraduate addiction teaching at the university, as well as managing mental health and addiction services in Northland.
The team would work closely with Māori community leaders and kaumātua, to ensure consultations were physically and spiritually safe for participants, and were undergoing training in tikanga.
All participants’ confidentiality would be respected and the trial has ethics approval.
“We think people get involved in trials like this because they don’t want to be addicted and go through the cycles of addiction,” Newcombe said.
“People want to get help for themselves, but there’s a strong desire to help their whānau and friends who are also using.”
Insights from the study would complement other major meth-targeted efforts, such as the Northland-based Te Ara Oranga programme, and an ongoing recovery study being run by Gisborne’s Mātai Medical Research Institute investigating effects on the brain.
- People interested in participating in the new study or learning more can email Dr Newcombe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jamie Morton is a specialist in science and environmental reporting. He joined the Herald reporting team in 2011 and has spent the last decade writing about everything from conservation and cosmology to climate change and Covid-19.