2 Dec 2022

Wasted: One kilo used to be a big drug bust - now it's 613kg

7:12 am on 2 December 2022

A cop and a Customs boss have been at the front line of the decades-long war on drugs. Do they think we're winning? They share their experiences in a new documentary from RNZ - Guyon Espiner: Wasted

We're not fighting a war on drugs, Customs intelligence chief Bruce Berry says, we're fighting the drug economy.

"The money is the driver. The supply is fed by the desire to make money and there is a demand for the product," he says in the new RNZ documentary Guyon Espiner: Wasted. "While there's demand, you will never beat the economy."

If you could create a cartoon character of a drug-busting Customs chief, you might sketch up something close to Bruce Berry: a tough, gruff, silver haired, hardliner, delivering his hard one-liners and media-friendly zingers.

"I don't think you will ever remove the organised crime element from the murky world of drugs."

Customs Intelligence Manager Bruce Berry. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Berry has worked for Customs for nearly four decades - almost as long as the 'War on Drugs', launched by US President Richard Nixon in 1971, has been waged - and his experience is a good guide to how that is going for New Zealand.

Berry recalls that in the 1990s it was a big deal for Customs to seize one kilo of drugs being smuggled into New Zealand.

Fast forward to 2022, when Customs intercepted 613 kilograms of methamphetamine. "And that was one interception," Berry says. In 2021, Customs seized more than 1.6 tons of drugs. In 2022, it was two tons.

What's going on? "The money's there, they're pushing the drugs."

Watch the documentary:

Guyon Espiner: Wasted premiered on RNZ and TVNZ1 on Wednesday night. You can watch it on demand any time by clicking here.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. With this kind of money at stake, drug cartels are doing some serious research and development.

Drugs are mixed with concrete and then extracted. Books and clothes are impregnated with drugs. "Things that we've seen and heard about for many years internationally are now with us. If you can think of it - it's been done," says Berry.

But why would you go to all that trouble to smuggle drugs into a tiny market like New Zealand?

Meth, New Zealand's most harmful illegal drug, is only used by 1.2 percent of the population, although those people make their way through about 16kg of it each week.

"That's around $8.5 million that's coming out of our communities each and every week, just for methamphetamine," Blair Macdonald, chief of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau, says.

Macdonald, a bearded cop with the physique of a distance runner, says New Zealand pays the third highest prices in the world for meth, behind Australia and Japan.

A kilo of refined meth that fetches $5000 in the US has a street value of about $160,000 in New Zealand. The volumes aren't large but the margins make Aotearoa a lucrative market for meth dealers. "When we're talking about pricing, we're very, very attractive."

Because of the wonders of waste water testing, Macdonald knows which towns are keen on which drugs. Aucklanders are the biggest cocaine users and people in Dunedin are the highest users of ecstasy. The hotspots for meth are Northland and the East Coast.

People living in poor neighbourhoods are seven times more likely to use amphetamines than those in wealthy areas.

That is no accident, according to an evaluation of Northland's experience with the meth treatment programme Te Ara Oranga, done for the Ministry of Health.

We'll come back to focus on Te Ara Oranga in a moment, but the team which evaluated the treatment programme, led by data scientist associate professor Darren Walton of Crow's Nest Research, provides a fascinating insight into how meth dealers use strategies similar to multi-level marketing schemes.

Meth users become meth sellers to fund their habits. They eradicate competition from other drugs like cannabis. They give away free product samples like a corporate might and they give batches of meth appealing names like Pink Champagne.

"Gangs will target areas that are socially deprived, so they can come into a small community where there is limited opportunity, limited education, limited incomes, and effectively take over and influence that community and actually drive levels of addiction," the report says.

The Te Ara Oranga evaluation says that it is "likely that Northland was deliberately targeted by organised crime as the testing ground to establish a wide methamphetamine market".

Organised crime groups use a multi-level marketing model where "consultants are incentivised in such a way that it may be more profitable for consultants to recruit others, than to sell products. This creates massive networks."

A long-time meth user told the evaluators that price and profit drives crime and violence. "It's worth more than diamonds and gold per weight," the meth user said. "That's why people are running around shooting each other for it … It's nothing to do with the substance or nothing about the substance, but it's because these guys drive around, and they end up with a mean car with piles of money in the glove box."

The report is a full throated roar for the success of Te Ara Oranga, a partnership between police, government, mental health and addiction services, community groups and iwi service providers, which began in Northland in 2017.

The Drug Foundation describes Te Ara Oranga as New Zealand's experiment with decriminalisation - treating meth use as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Northland police still go after the meth suppliers but when they get the dealer, they go through their phones and identify the buyers. Then they target the users - not to lock them up but to offer them a place on a treatment programme.

In Wasted, Whangārei detective Shane Pilmer, a sceptic at first and now a full convert to the programme, outlines the police approach.

"We'll knock on the door, it'll be a cold call, and we'll be dressed in plain clothes but with our vests on and pretty much we've got about two minutes probably to convince them why we're there, who we are, and that we're actually there to help."

Pilmer has only a narrow window to make his sales pitch. "You can see when they come to the door there's that little bit of apprehension, maybe a little bit of hostility, initially, like, 'why are you here?'"

Then the shoulders drop and the tension eases. "They're not looking at you through the same lens," he says. "They are listening to what we've got to offer and nine times out of 10, they'll be saying to us, 'we didn't know you did this kind of thing, we didn't know this help was out there'. Not every person will accept it, but you sow the seed with them."

Police have the power to arrest these people for buying, possessing and using meth, but they choose to use the health system rather than the justice system.

"What is the benefit of prosecuting them," Pilmer says. "We are better off trying to help them to get off the drug and stop them being a drug user and help them to turn their life around."

Te Ara Oranga has resulted in a 34 percent drop in criminal offending by those who take part.

The Helen Clark Foundation, in a research project looking at new approaches to reducing meth harm, estimated Te Ara Oranga could be rolled out nationally for $40-45 million.

It says that would be a good investment given it provides a return of $3-7 for every dollar spent.

The Helen Clark Foundation report also recommended removing criminal penalties for small amounts of meth and other drugs.

It suggested regulating cannabis "and other lower harm substances to provide safer alternatives to methamphetamine and keep more people away from the illicit market".

Currently, we try to smash the illicit market by going after the supply.

Customs employs hundreds of people - and quite a few dogs - to do that. We filmed them at Auckland Airport detecting international packages with drugs ingeniously hidden in boxes of lace and inside cheap shop displays.

It was impressive work by dedicated staff. But the documentary asks, if this was a war we were winning, wouldn't drugs like meth be harder to get?

Wouldn't Bruce Berry and his team at Customs be seizing fewer drugs each year rather than seeing volumes increase?

Berry says we are fighting the drug economy. In Wasted, we ask the question: what would happen if we took the drug economy out of the equation?

Watch the documentary:

Guyon Espiner: Wasted premiered on RNZ and TVNZ1 on Wednesday night. You can watch it on demand any time by clicking here.