24 Nov 2023

New Zealand's meth flood

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 24 November 2023

In spite of regular busts that seem to capture increasingly record amounts of meth, New Zealanders don't seem to have a problem getting hold of the drug.

Drugs and cash seized by police in February 2023.

Drugs and cash seized by police. Photo: Police / Supplied

It's been 25 years since methamphetamine use exploded in New Zealand, but despite the drug's well-known dangers, tens of thousands of Kiwis are still hooked. 

Today's episode of The Detail looks at our problem with P, including how the nation got so addicted, and where all that meth is coming from. 

It feels as though most weeks there's a new headline about another record breaking bust. In January, 713 kilograms of methamphetamine concealed in maple syrup bottles was seized by police, and just a couple of months later another record-breaking 747kg was located during a raid on a south Auckland property. Just last month, 26 kilograms was found in a Canadian man's suitcase – the largest amount of the drug to be seized in a passenger's luggage.

Methamphetamine is flooding the market, and New Zealand is an attractive one. 

"You can land 600 kilos here for something like a couple of million dollars, and produce $123 million in profit. The profits are immense." says Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, the head of NZ Police's National Organised Crime Group. 

Detective Superintendent Greg Williams

Detective Superintendent Greg Williams. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

But what started as an operation confined to local gangs has in recent years spread much further afield. 

"It was a number of really influential senior gang members coming from gangs like the Rebels, Comancheros, and the like that were pushed back here in New Zealand [as 501 deportees from Australia]," he says.

"What they brought with them was those transnational links and sophistication that was quite different to the way in which the gangs here operated." 

Williams says Police now call them "criminal business entities", because referring to them as gangs is far too simple. 

"I think it's a better term because it shows you the sophistication of how these enterprises operate and function. Just like any business, it's resource infrastructure, it's multiple forms of revenue, it's building a market.

"It's having professional facilitators supporting them, and enabling them to operate." 

And the harm they're creating is immense. 

Mad on Meth book cover

Mad on Meth book cover Photo: supplied

"Once they've got these people hooked, they're trapped by addiction. They're trapped by debt, and this is where we are seeing people being used to sell drugs on behalf of these groups, buying guns for them, prostituting themselves. It's just tragic."

The Detail also speaks to 1News political reporter Benedict Collins who tells Wilhelmina Shrimpton about Aotearoa's history with the drug. 

His new book 'Mad On Meth' explores our cultural and political experience with it, an addiction that stemmed from normalised amphetamine use back in the 1950s and 60s.

"You could get amphetamines at your chemist for a while, and you didn't even need a prescription. Methamphetamine was regularly prescribed to people for weight loss. It was really widespread."

Collins says the drug was banned in the 70s, but by the 90s, P labs and meth cooks began to boom when people figured out they could use precursor ingredients from cold and flu medicine to make it.  As a result, medicine containing pseudoephedrine was made unavailable over the counter. 

Now meth is mostly imported from overseas labs, and Collins believes with the rate at which it's arriving on our shores, it's time for a rethink about the way we tackle the problem – such as a government supply programme where people with heavy addictions can get a safe supply of methamphetamine without the black market.

"Overseas with multiple different drugs it's been shown that when governments do this, it straight away reduces the need for these people to be committing crime to afford drugs. 

"You look at the needle exchange that saved hundreds of lives: millions upon millions of dollars in health treatments by giving intravenous drug users access to a clean, endless supply of clean needles. It's been incredibly efficient.

"You look at pill testing ... What the proposal is, is not making it legal. It would be a very, very targeted supply to those very heavy, highly-addicted people, trying to help them and break their cycle of addiction."

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