Hard News by Russell Brown


From Zero: The Meth Episode

The episode of the From Zero podcast published today looks at the state of things with methamphetamine. It finds a widespread belief that the official statistics – which have meth use at just over 1% of the population, half what it was at peak – are missing something. That there's a problem placing severe strain on treatment resources and driving a change of approach from the police.

Since we finished the episode, the latest Annual Arrestee Drug Use Monitoring Report  has been published, and shows increases in both use and availability of meth:

... the proportion of detainees who had used methamphetamine in the previous year increased from 28 percent in 2012 to 36 percent in 2015.
The proportion of detainees who felt dependent on methamphetamine increased from 22 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2015.

The police press release described an accompanying reduction in the use and availability of cannabis as a "positive trend". I really don't think so. 

It's widely agreed that this time around, meth is manifesting in different places: in the regions and in poorer communities. And I was told more than once that in some places, meth is overtaking marijuana as the social drug of choice. That is not a "positive trend".

In episode five of From Zero, published next week, we look at the economic reasons why that might be happening. But this week is a story about consequences. At the newly-expanded Higher Ground rehab facility in Te Atatu, nearly three quarters of new clients are meth-dependent, although the picture is complicated by multiple other drugs, primarily alcohol. There's a permanent waiting list for treatment.

Things are worse in Porirua, where longtime Mongrel Mob leader Dennis Makalio and his wife Liz are essentially improvising the kind of support and services that are not being provided by the system. They print out and laminate signs that people can put up to let friends and whanau know they're detoxing, and not to bring drugs to the house. They've also set up a Facebook group to share information.

When I visited the Makalios, they also gave me a song they'd recorded and I've uploaded it to YouTube for them:

Part of this week's episode has been spun off into a news story this morning, based on my interview with Detective Senior Sergeant Stan Brown, who headed Operation Rosella, which brought down a meth supply ring in WestAuckland this year. In the course of that operation, Waitemata police harvested 140 mobile phone numbers, all belonging to meth customers. Instead of seeing how many of those people they could prosecute, the police did something visionary: they offered them help with their drug use.

In an interview with me, Detective Senior Sergeant Brown said that his officers now do not always prosecute meth supply, if they determine that it's small-time dealing to support a habit. They will try and get people into treatment. I think this is a prudent use of police resources.

Police will tell you – as Superintendent Virginia Le Bas, National Manager Organised Crime, told me – that they have always pursued this kind of "demand reduction", which is true. But it's also true, as Stan Brown told me, that things have changed since he served in the Drug Squad in the 1980s. And that change is fascinating.

Not all state agencies are working in the same direction, though. At the core of drug rehabilitation is the belief – backed by evidence – that the key to beating drug dependence is stability and security. Higher Ground sometimes has to teach people how to cook for themselves. The Alcohol and Other Drugs Court seeks to get those who come before it not only sober but engaged in their communities. I've interviewed Judge Emma Aitken of the AODC for this episode.

And yet, we have Housing New Zealand doing the opposite of that and terminating tenancies and tearing families apart on the basic of deeply questionable tests for "meth contamination".

It's not helping. It's really not helping.

Episode 4 of From Zero, The Meth Episode, is available here on the RNZ website and in the iTunes podcast store.

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