Hard News by Russell Brown


Meth houses and stigma

This week, the Ministry of Health published a review of standards for the remediation of former clandestine methamphetamine labs. The "review" in the title signifies a review of relevant international literature, but the document effectively also functions as a review of the ministry's own 2010 guidelines for meth lab remediation.

In this context, the review does two specific things. It draws a crucial distinction between properties that have been used to manufacture methamphetamine and those where meth has simply been consumed. And it proposes a new standard for the latter of two micrograms of methamphetamine residue per 100 square centimetres (2.0 µg/100 cm2) – four times higher than the 0.5 µg/100 cm2 value recommended in the 2010 lab guidelines. It's still a pretty conservative value – it could have been 3.0 and still been well in line with the evidence.

The 0.5 benchmark remains for former labs, as a "conservative sentinel value" where the presence of meth residue may signal the presence of other, more toxic, chemicals used in manufacture.

In a general sense, the review – commissioned by the ministry from an ESR team as a contribution to the development of formal cleanup standards by Standards New Zealand – is much clearer and more concise than the rambling 2010 guidelines. And it does something all the people who have misapprehended the 2010 guidelines thought they did – reaches a view on the actual toxilogical harms caused by ingesting methamphetamine at these very low concentrations, noting that:

The highest calculated exposures to MA are those experienced by children under 2 years of age, due to their frequent contact with household surfaces, their low body weight, and their hand-to-mouth behaviour. However, even these exposures, using conservative exposure assumptions, fall several orders of magnitude below prescribed therapeutic daily MA doses for children as young as 3 years of age. 

In other words, the potential dose to the most vulnerable infant from touching the walls of a house "contaminated" with meth is vastly lower than the daily therapeutic dose of methamphetamine (sold as Desoxyn) given to a three year-old to treat ADHD. It's a strong vindication of a similar analysis offered by Dr Nick Kim of Massey University in my Poor Foundations story on the issue for Matters of Substance back in August.

The ministry might deserve congratulations for producing such a useful summary of the literature.

Might, if it hadn't spent six years sitting on its hands while all hell broke loose.

The ministry claimed yesterday that it had repeatedly warned Housing New Zealand it was misusing its 2010 lab guidelines to evict tenants. And yet when I approached the ministry with questions about this selfsame misapprehension of its advice, the response was to insist that the guidelines were "self-explanatory" and no further action was necessary. So there's a pretty high stench of bullshit here.

I suspect that over the next few months we'll learn more about the dreadful ways in which Housing NZ has applied its misapprehended knowledge. This morning, Radio New Zealand reported on a family – one of many, according to a South Auckland family support service – that had been thrown out of its home on the basis of alleged meth use that left residues in their home. Use that was strongly denied and which Housing NZ would never have been able to prove in court, because it does not take baseline tests before tenancies begin. Its evidence – and this is literally what's laid down the the Housing NZ process – is generally guilt by association or gossip from the neighbours.

There is talk now of reparations and class actions. Whatever happens, there's another agency I'd like to see held to account: the Tenancy Tribunal. The tribunal took an extreme stance in its apprehension of the the MoH guidelines – insisting that any property where any part tested over the 0.5 guideline value was therefore uninhabitable and should only be entered by people in hazmat suits. The tribunal, too, was warned.

I would also hope that those of my journalistic brethren who gave gullible interviews to self-interested "experts" (spoiler: not experts at all) in the meth-testing industry will reflect on their own failures and their own complicity in the damage done. The same for government ministers – Paula Bennett especially – prepared to harness the hype for their own political purposes.

There's a common thread through all of this, and it's drug stigma.

The stigma that permits lower standards of evidence, and of jurisprudence, care and decency, because it's drugs and no one wants to appear soft on drugs. The stigma that always plagues any attempt to do the right thing. When some of us bang on about evidence-based drug policy, this is what we're pushing against.

By way of closing, I was told yesterday that one of the most prominent meth-testing entrpreneurs, a man who's had soft media for years, is very upset about the Ministry of Health review. Well, good fucking job.

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