Politics in the P pipe

Evaluating John Key’s Community Crusade against P

By Denis O’Reilly

Prime Minister John Key’s anti-methamphetamine initiatives have a good chance of long term success. The ban on across-the-counter sales of remedies containing pseudoephidrine is something of a red-herring in my view. However, the Police maintain that these pharmaceuticals are used as the primary precursor in about 30% of the clan lab busts they make. So getting the domestic source off the market plugs one hole, somewhat at least, albeit at a cost to those with nasal congestion, seasonal allergies, and respiratory conditions. There may be unintended health consequences for some, but I’ll keep the focus on the drive to combat P precursors.
The real supply issue occurs at our borders, which are proving to be porous. More Customs officers targeting imports of methamphetamine (“Ice”) and its precursors – mainly ContacNT – will be useful. But as ‘world best’ border control practices suggest we can expect an interdiction rate of about 20%. Even if we doubled effectiveness, we’re still going to have an inbound supply problem. So, Key can’t win the day with a supply-reduction strategy alone. But, he has been astute, and has continued support for community-based action through the Ministry of Health’s demand-reduction strategies.
It is this two pronged approach, and the level of synergy that can be built by cross agency integration, that is likely to produce success. Key has also introduced new treatment options – which is another form of demand reduction. This is in response to the cry from families grappling with the nightmare that follows the P addiction of a loved one. Whilst there are common factors in all addiction recovery processes P addicts don’t easily fit in with generic services, and can cause disturbances with others – for instance, alcoholics.

Whilst there are some good community based services – and I find that the emergency response teams provided by the respective DHB’s to be really effective – often there is a need to lift people out of their immediate situation. Unless you can afford to get access to expensive professional health retreats, there’s been little generally available. The new resources may help address that. We can also expect some impact from the entry of the philanthropic sector, through the Stellar Trust. Here high profile personalities, like Paul Holmes, have clustered around the anti-P cause. It is good to see that, led by Mike Williams as Chief Executive, they are getting out and doing the homework before implementing their campaign.
Early in October I gave a keynote address at the Australian Drug Conference, in the underbelly of Melbourne (well, the Victoria Royal Automobile Association HQ anyway). In listening to the Australian presentations, I took some comfort from where we’re comparatively at in Aotearoa, despite our currently high usage rates of ‘P’. The Australian drug scene is different to ours, with more use of opiates, and wide use of intravenous injection as opposed to the Kiwi ‘burn’ – freebasing through heating a pipe or lightbulb.
The Australian focus seems to be on harm-minimisation through education and health promotion and by way of widely accessible needle exchanges. This is to counter transmission of blood borne virus. Just as in Aotearoa, through unhealthy drug laws, the Aussies disproportionately lock up their indigenous citizens for drug-related behaviours.
On the other hand though they don’t try and balance the scale like we do by engaging those very communities in community resilience building, and in developing strategies to self prohibit. In fact generally, the Aussies don’t seem to be taking the community action demand-reduction approach to use of either licit (alcohol and tobacco) and illicit recreational drugs (cannabis, P, and other letters of the alphabet) that our policies are enabling here. Some of the Aussies told me they’d give their ‘oi’ teeth for this approach to be taken up, let alone having their Prime Minister taking a “hands on” leadership role in the sector.

I wouldn’t want to crow too much though. As P usage has become endemic in Aotearoa there has been some shift away from freebasing (smoking in a pipe) towards intravenous use, even amongst Maori user groups. Users report a cleaner high, more control over the amount they are ingesting (hard to do when smoking), and all round better management of their behaviours.
This could present us with a new type of problem – since Maori drug users don’t traditionally make use of needle exchange services. If there are unsafe user practices, ( including sharing of needles ) we could have a new health threat developing. On the other hand, the Maori community has been building resilience against P for some time now.
Pita Sharples has run a programme to combat P from his headquarters at Hoani Waitaiti Marae since 2003. Last week Tainui, after some six years of awareness raising by tribal members, launched their own comprehensive ‘Purely Tribal – say ‘no’ to P!’ campaign. Their formula is to make a presentation about the deleterious effects of the substance, undertake a survey of those present as to their need for and access to services, and then ask them to literally sign a covenant to be ‘P free’.
This is a powerful process. One might expect to see this being replicated by other tribes. I think that the Maori community generally might resolve the P problem before the general mainstream New Zealand community. It is interesting to note that at this inaugural event in Tainui there was a broad representation of different Maori gangs. There is much political rhetoric about ‘crushing P dealing gangs’. The crusher herself is reported as saying that the previous Govt spent too much time focussing on alcohol, and not enough on P dealing gangs.
There is a hint of industry lobbying evident in Collins’s paradigm, and I don’t see the point of taking political shots at each other when it comes to complex issues such as developing healthy and effective drug laws. I’d like to think that we could take a multi-partisan approach and build on the work of successive administrations, because these things take time. In any case Key seems to be prepared to build on the efforts of the previous crew – in particular those of Jim Anderton, who took the issue very seriously indeed.
Anderton had no reluctance to meeting with pro-social gang leaders and Sharples too has been a key player (no pun intended) in raising the voice of conscience within these groups, being both critical of P-related behaviours on one hand, and supportive of moves towards ‘whanau ora’ – healthy and achieving families – on the other. This willingness to engage has been criticised by Labour on the grounds that it endorses gangs. On the contrary, Sharples is simply delivering the Government’s message in the Maori way, ‘kanohi ki te kanohi’, face to face.

Despite the fact that the previous Government reclassified P from Class B to Class A and increased the sentence for import and manufacture up to life imprisonment, the increasing volume of seizures at the border tell their own story: that punishment and suppression on their own won’t stem demand. Dr Chris Wilkins’ research for the Police suggests that the P market has reached or is reaching ‘maturity’ and on the basis of a notional product life cycle could now be expected to trend downwards to decline.
P has a number of characteristics, including the ‘burn out’ of users, which combine to create a trail of destruction wherever it goes. Whilst there are all sorts of deleterious effects including drug induced psychosis – you can write a list a page long – there are two medical conditions that sort of sum the impact up. The first is called ‘anergia’ – it simply means you become bloody useless (and thus a drain on everyone else).
The other is called ‘anhedonia’, and it relates to the sufferer’s inability to experience natural pleasure. It is this latter factor that I think is the major source of hurt and heartbreak with P. It results from the brain chemistry and the impact of the ingestion of P. Basically the body is flooded with dopamine – the body’s feel good chemical. This is why P became popular, because in the first instance you feel really good, clear, and confident. Shamefaced, I can tell you this because, until I came to my senses, I used it.
We used to say – and I don’t mean to be offensive – that on P, you can drink like a fish, party like an animal and fuck like a horse. The trade off though is that as you play around with your brain chemicals, things get out of balance. The flood of dopamine gobbles up your serotonin, the brain’s moderating chemical that helps us level out our emotions. The ‘high’ is met with an equal and corresponding ‘low’. Eventually the body figures it doesn’t have to produce dopamine – because you’re ingesting more than enough – and seems to switch off the synapses that allow these things to do whatever they naturally do.
The consequence is that there is no ‘love’ button, no little squirt of feel good when you see your wife or kids or lover or the people who used to bring you joy. You become self absorbed, seeing nothing and no-one but self; become cold and uncaring, forever whining and blaming others, until the next fix, at which time the rosy glasses of drugged denial shut out reality. This cycle continues until the inevitable meltdown…and I say inevitable because it is. Fast fuse or slow fuse, P gets everyone in the end.
Don’t just take my word for it. Five years ago, this month, my once fried friend, Joe Walsh, helped us begin to raise consciousness about P in Aotearoa. We went around the country with Joe playing a few numbers, then talking to the crowd. At home in Hawke’s Bay we held a concert on Otatara, and Joe said this:

“ Methamphetamine is evil. If you are involved in bringing it into the country, or selling it, or manufacturing it, your ancestors are not at peace with you. You will eventually be responsible for people’s deaths, and when you go to meet your God, it will be a burden on your shoulders. I have tried it. It is a dead end. It goes nowhere. It’s a demon and it eats your soul from inside you. If you are doing meth I say to you, no matter how awful things are they will get worse beyond your wildest imagination. But you can come back, as hopeless as it will look. It was the hardest thing that I have ever had to do but it can be done”
Joe Walsh, Otatara Pa, October 2004

These are some of the reasons why I believe that we can, and will, create a nationwide agreement at a community level that this substance is so undesirable that we agree to self prohibit. Yes, there probably will still be small pockets of users, but the day is coming in Aotearoa where P will be yesterday’s drug.
I admit that, like Murphy, O’Reilly is an optimist. But I see the signs of change, especially at the social edge. As agencies and Departments integrate Key’s newly announced strategies to reduce the demand for and supply of P, most unlikely alliances to combat P will begin to occur. The army necessary to make ‘war on’ P may arise from a loving and inclusive community, rather than the militarised forces of the State. As an example, a day after the Tainui anti-P initiative, those well known champions of no bullshit, the Salvation Army, opened a P addiction recovery centre in conjunction with the Notorious chapter of the Mongrel Mob. God and community are on Key’s side. I rest my case. ENDS