It has been another busy and interesting year in our region. We revisit some of our most popular premium stories from 2022. Originally published on August 27.
30-year-old Kharl WiRepa was held against his will and stabbed, 47-year-old Celestina Aolele-Grant became a prostitute at 14 and 24-year-old Evarna Koia ended up in prison. These are the stories of three Rotorua people who became addicted to meth but have since turned their lives around. Now, they're organising a March Against Meth hīkoi. Megan Wilson reports.
Kharl WiRepa first tried meth when he was 18.
His on-and-off addiction lasted about 10 years, during which time he lost his job as a fashion stylist and ended up getting stabbed.
Being on meth was like being "possessed demonically" but the local fashion designer and founder of the Miss Rotorua pageant says he has since been "saved".
In light of his experience, WiRepa is helping organise a March Against Meth hīkoi in Rotorua. It was originally planned for September 3 but has since been postponed. The new date is yet to be confirmed.
WiRepa encourages anyone who has been impacted by meth to attend.
"People talk about the housing crisis in Rotorua but that's not our crisis,'' he tells the Rotorua Daily Post Weekend.
"Our crisis is the methamphetamine crisis ... we need to be having this conversation about methamphetamine in Rotorua more than any other issue that we're having today."
When WiRepa tried meth for the first time, he developed an addiction that "spiralled out of control".
At the time, he was working as a fashion stylist in Auckland.
"I ended up losing my job over that because I wasn't showing up to work and my mental health was being increasingly damaged from the use."
He returned to Rotorua and went to fashion school.
"It was creativity and the arts that saved me. And I also returned to my religion."
But in 2017, WiRepa's addiction indirectly led to him being the victim of an attack in which he was unlawfully detained and stabbed.
WiRepa said his ordeal made him realise he wanted to stop using drugs.
"Since then we created the Meth or Mana kaupapa, which is an online group. We have over 2000 members and that's been a great success."
WiRepa said he was not ungrateful for his experience.
"It's led me to this point in time today where myself with other ex-users have now come together and have planned this kaupapa. And I believe that sometimes the Lord gives us these negative experiences so we can be his soldiers to carry out a bigger purpose."
WiRepa said he was a "very active person" when he used meth and still worked, but he performed better off it.
"I'm a much better leader now than what I was then."
A drug addict and prostitute by age 14
At 13, Celestina Aolele-Grant was sent to live with other family members in Australia because she was "naughty" and had started smoking weed.
She says she didn't like it there.
"I became a heroin addict, a cocaine addict and a prostitute at 14."
Aolele-Grant says she was earning $2000 to $3000 a night.
"The more money I made, the more drugs I had."
For her 21st birthday, family members brought her home to New Zealand.
She then met her husband and did not return to Australia. But she says her husband did not know she was a drug user.
"Because you can't freely get heroin and cocaine in New Zealand, meth was the next best option.
"I started smoking meth behind my husband's back ... I told him I was going to work every day when in fact I was going to do (drug) deliveries every day."
One day, she says a deal went wrong and she was stabbed and ended up in hospital. She says she was unknowingly pregnant at the time and lost her baby.
In hospital, she went "cold turkey" on drugs.
Aolele-Grant says that in 2012, after nine miscarriages, she had her first child. But she suffered from post-natal depression and "craved" meth.
"So I went and got it back. And my daughter suffered ... I ignored her as a mother, I let her father do everything."
When she got pregnant again she stopped using. But after her second child, she "abandoned" her family.
"I went straight to a gang associate's house and got back on the meth."
Aolele-Grant returned home to her family in 2019 - and asked her husband for help.
"I didn't expect my husband to be still waiting for me to come home... But he was the only one who helped me.
"He introduced me back to Jesus and since that day I haven't looked back."
Aolele-Grant is now studying to be a drug and alcohol counsellor and is competing in the Miss Rotorua pageant this year.
"I want to help people in the same situation as me."
Prison and getting kicked out of school
Evarna Koia first tried meth when she was 14.
"I started rebelling and I started stepping into this new exciting life, it was all about adventure and thrill."
However, "as soon as you pick up the pipe and you have a taste of the meth life it's just down a path of darkness".
Koia says she burnt many bridges with family members.
"They no longer trusted me at their house. They no longer helped and support me because I became so selfish in what I wanted."
She went to three different high schools before dropping out in year 10, aged 14. She enrolled in an alternative education course - a course for people do when they are no longer accepted at high school - but was kicked out after six months.
She tried to get her life back on track but fell into "heavy" meth use.
At one point, "I was fully mentally unstable ... I couldn't even speak a straight sentence to my family members".
Koia then had a dream where "a very bright beautiful light" appeared, who she says was Jesus Christ.
The next day, she remembers waking up and "everything was clearer and more colourful".
"My conscience was wiped clean ... for once there was peace in my mind."
But Koia "went off the wagon" again - and started injecting meth.
"I went to prison ... and then that's when I came back crawling on my knees to God."
Koia says God gave her two paths - one of drugs, crime and a "sad, dark and depressed life" and one where she surrendered herself to God.
"And I chose to do that. I got released [from prison], I got baptised ... and then I came to Rotorua."
Koia says she started going to church, attended Narcotics Anonymous programmes and found stability and routine.
In 2019, she won the Miss Rotorua pageant.
Koia says it took a lot of awareness, support, education and a "divine intervention" to pull herself off her "path of darkness".
Koia says she is now a "totally different person". She is married with a son and pregnant with her second son. She works at a clothing shop in Rotorua and is helping organise the March Against Meth hīkoi.
Lifewise Rotorua regional manager Tepora Apirana says meth use has "huge" social and health impacts on people, such as violence, aggressive behaviour and disconnection from families.
"We provide pre and post-treatment for people that are heading off to further rehabilitation centres.
"Our whole aim is to help people reclaim their futures.
"They usually will experience a detox and then they come to us and we start right from the beginning. We help retrain them into basic things like structure, routine, engagement, socialisation, counselling - we have a whole sweep of things that can support people."
Its mental health and addiction team will be participating in the hīkoi, she says.
Rotorua police area commander Inspector Phil Taikato says police are aware of the harm caused by the sale and supply of illicit drugs, such as health issues and further criminal offending.
In partnership with iwi and other partner agencies, Rotorua police have established several programmes dealing with the medical issues of illicit drugs, he says.
"We have developed perpetrator awareness programmes and all-of-whānau harm reduction programmes."
Police have also tasked dedicated staff to work closer with gangs and other groups at risk, to help them disassociate with drugs.
"We want to reassure our communities that we are committed to holding people to account for such offending."
Anyone who is aware of or concerned about criminal activity in their communities, particularly the sale and supply of methamphetamine, is asked to contact police on 105.
Information can also be provided anonymously via Crime Stoppers on 0800 555 111.
According to the New Zealand Illicit Drug Harm Index, the social cost of drug-related harm was estimated to cost New Zealand $813.09 million in 2020. This includes harm to an individual's health, whānau, friends and the wider community.
The Government spends around $350 million each year addressing drug-related issues such as enforcement and treatment, according to the Government's Drug Harm Index in 2016.
March Against Meth hīkoi
The hīkoi was planned for September 3 but has since been postponed. A new date is yet to be confirmed.
Koia says it will be a "friendly and peaceful march".
"This march is about shining a light on those shadows to expose what's really happening - there's family breakdowns, there's poverty ... there are children who are struggling and they need help."
Koia says marching through the streets of Rotorua will "let the public know that we are standing against this problem in our community".
"We have a voice and we're coming with a message - those people that we know exist out there, in the dark, in the shadows, we want to reach out to them.
"We want to help them and bring awareness to the public that you can't ignore this problem. This is a problem that has been around for a very long time but has been lurking in the shadows."
WiRepa says: "This hīkoi isn't just about the addicts but it's about whānau that have been hurt."
Where to get help
0800 METH HELP (0800 6384 4357) Alcohol Drug Helpline (Phone 0800 787 797 or text 8681) They also have a Māori line on 0800 787 798 and a Pasifika line on 0800 787 799
Visit thelevel.org.nz for information on how to stay safer and make changes for those using methamphetamine.