Whanganui ranks in the top 10 consumers of methamphetamine in the country, according to detailed wastewater testing figures obtained by NZME.
Read more: NZ's meth crisis
The figures, obtained under the Official Information Act, show that between late 2018 and 2020, Whanganui averaged a weekly consumption of 346.57g of meth, or 7.79g per 1000 people - the seventh highest in the country.
The data was collected as a result of wastewater testing conducted in Whanganui every two months, which measures the number of illicit drugs present in wastewater including cocaine, MDMA, and meth.
Whanganui is the largest town of the top seven methamphetamine consumers, with smaller more regional centres such as Kaitaia, Opotiki, and Wairoa placing in the top three.
The figures collected in Whanganui and across the country more widely are used to inform direct funding and support to the worst-hit areas.
The data is also used to inform police where the most significant amounts of methamphetamine are distributed, in an attempt to crack down on illegal dealing.
Tim Metcalfe, the executive officer at family social service Jigsaw Whanganui, said the figures weren't surprising.
"The rates of use in Whanganui are absolutely off the charts, and that's certainly reflected in our experience in engaging with families. It's incredibly destructive," Metcalfe said.
"When there's meth use in the background it becomes incredibly challenging to generate any sort of meaningful change within families. The other family members can be left feeling pretty helpless.
"I would say over the last four or five years, it's become increasingly prevalent."
But while the drug was destructive, Metcalfe said, his organisation had witnessed dramatic turnarounds in people working on their addiction.
"I'm aware of people who have managed to get free of it. Generally, they've had very good family support and good peer support."
Detective Inspector Blair Macdonald, the manager of the drug intelligence unit that funds the wastewater testing project, said police were conscious that arresting their way out of the crisis wasn't a path to success.
"We have to work with other government agencies and community groups to address the wider social issues."
Police intend to use the wastewater data to identify places that need more support and then to work with other agencies and community groups to provide opportunities for addiction treatment, employment and education.
"We can't forget that behind all these numbers — and the numbers are really interesting — are real people," Macdonald said.
"Mums, dads, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters who have an addiction issue and it's really significant in these vulnerable communities."
That was an opinion shared by Whanganui and Ruapehu Police Area Commander Nigel Allan, who said that in 2019, an organised crime group was established by Police in the region in an attempt to stamp out the illegal meth trade.
"Police are acutely aware of the risk of harm posed by methamphetamine both to the community and to our staff. We are working with key community partners to reduce demand for methamphetamine while increasing our capacity to disrupt supply," Allan said.
"Recent operations by this group have targeted local dealers and interrupted supplies of methamphetamine. We are encouraged that we are seeing a downward trend in the amount of methamphetamine consumed within our community over the last fourteen months"
But while the figures paint a detailed picture of Whanganui's methamphetamine consumption, there is no similar testing in the smaller towns in the region.
In response to an Official Information Act request from the Chronicle late last year, police confirmed that they do not test the water in Taumarunui, Ohakune, Raetihi, Waiouru, Marton, Waverley or Pātea townships.
Responding to questions from the Chronicle, a police spokesperson said that while the wastewater-testing programme covers about 75 per cent of New Zealand's population, some areas are prioritised over others.
"A number of factors are involved in selecting sites to be tested. These include the wastewater infrastructure and flow measurement equipment in place, the population of the catchment zone, the ability of treatment plant staff to sample seven days a week, police operational priorities, and financial impact.
"Whanganui was included from the beginning of the nationwide rollout on this basis. The programme has since expanded, and now records data from 46 sites covering approximately 75 per cent of the population."
Dr Chris Wilkins, one of New Zealand's leading drug researchers, said that often those in charge of making decisions related to drug use naively neglect the regions.
"The decision-makers in Wellington are a long way from some of these places, where there is a lot of social deprivation.
"The services for health and drug treatment are really terrible in rural New Zealand," Wilkins added. "Often there is nothing."
Wilkins said that, while solutions are not easy, decision-makers in Wellington now have a responsibility to target resources to the right areas.
"People in small towns would say to me 'We've got a big meth problem'," Wilkins said. "But it was hard to convince health officials, or even the police sometimes. And sometimes residents don't want to admit they live in this 'meth town'."
"The treatment services we've got are naturally concentrated in cities. It's not enough, we need to double them, and put them where needed in these smaller places."