Hard News by Russell Brown


"Meth contamination": the making of a moral panic

The first time I half-heard a news report about Housing New Zealand tenants "contaminating" homes by smoking methamphetamine in them, I assumed it was a mistake. Clandestine labs, sure: they can leave behind some some hazardous chemicals, depending on the actual process employed. But a dwelling being rendered uninhabitable and needing to be torn apart simply because meth was consumed in it? It didn't seem possible.

It isn't possible.

I'm grateful to Matters of Substance, the magazine of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, for commissioning me to investigate the way this all got out of hand – and for making the decision to publish the story online today, rather than waiting until the end of the month for the printed version. In the story, I wrote this:

If the “meth contamination” mess can fairly be described as a moral panic, it has broader implications than most moral panics. Not only is it creating havoc in the property investment market, it is prompting Housing New Zealand to do precisely the wrong thing with vulnerable people. 

Early on in the process, I wondered how on earth we could get out of this self-sustaining disaster. I'm more optimistic now. Dr Nick Kim's willingness to go public with his criticism of the way the Ministry of Health's meth lab remediation guidelines had been misunderstood and misused has been crucial. And the sheer cost of the misapprehension – Housing New Zealand has budgeted $22 million for testing and remediation this year and will almost certainly blow past that – has finally gained the attention of the government.

When I asked Dr Kim whether he blamed journalists for the panic, he was charitable: they were simply following the official word, he thought. I'm less inclined to be charitable. This whole thing has been allowed to develop over two or three years as a consequence of weak and credulous reporting. Time and time again, "experts" who are not experts and who have have an obvious conflict of interest have been quoted by journalists who should have known better. Instead of revealing a grossly under-regulated industry, they consistently gave that industry credibility it did not deserve.

And the troublesome guidelines themselves? As I've sought to make clear in the story, when they were created in 2010 there was a paucity of information and almost nothing in the way of formal standards internationally. There was pressure to come up with a number and that number turned out to be very low.

I note in the story that the choice of the 0.5 microgram guideline (it could equally have been the statutory level of 1.5 that applies in California) was influenced by the peer reviewing of a team from Forensic and Industrial Science and noted that part of the argument there was that methamphetamine can be treated as a proxy for other, harder-to-test-for chemicals associated with manufacture. It does seem worth acknowledging that one of those reviewers, Elizabeth McKenzie, was also doing work on meth persistence that was later reflected in her PhD thesis, and which was relevant.

But she isn't a toxicologist, the published guidelines were not intended as a benchmark for human safety and the guidelines should never have been applied outside their purpose: which was to guide the remediation of places where meth had been manufactured.

Why did the Ministry of Health stay silent while all hell broke loose? It's hard to say, but this is the kind of issue where people keep their heads down. It's notable that after his initial commentary for the Science Media Centre, observing that "the concentrations will not be sufficiently high enough to cause either psychoactive or toxic effects", Dr Leo Schep of the National Poisons Centre referred subsequent press inquiries to Dr Kim.

The real victims of this debacle are the Housing NZ tenants who lost their homes, often on the basis of no more than suspicion or gossip. As I note in the story, the corporation's meth team went some  pretty grim places with this problem – even "talking about" the idea of making universal drug tests a precondition of tenancy. They seem to have lost touch with Housing NZ's role as a social agency.

I can't be sure, but I suspect Housing NZ's practice, at least as far as remediation goes, is already quietly changing. When I visited the Housing NZ flats in Greys Avenue a little over a month ago, I counted nine places boarded up up. There are only a couple now, and some of those opened have not been stripped out. Number 37, boarded up since March, is getting a paint job only. So needless cost may be being curbed now.

That will be of little comfort to those who have lost their homes and security. This is a story of how things get out of hand, and how moral panic and drug stigma lead us to make terrible decisions.

You can read the story here at Matters of Substance.


NB: An OIA response from Housing NZ arrived after the print deadline and I was only able to incorporate a couple of key points in the story – those being that Housing NZ has ruled out doing universal baseline tests for methamphetamine before its properties are occupied, and that it took no advice on the socal impact of evicting people who may have had drug problems. I've uploaded it and you're welcome to have a look through it.

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