P: Let’s Give It A Miss

Since much of the P sold here originates in Asia, what – if anything – are Asian political and community leaders doing to help stem the trade?

by Denis O’Reilly

Way back when Werewolf was just beginning to howl (Werewolf 5, November 2009) I wrote an article praising, in general, the Government’s initiatives to counter the importation into, and manufacture, distribution and use of methamphetamine in New Zealand. Now I appreciate that the talk of the moment is about the most readily available and destructive recreational drug available, alcohol – it is assessed that we incur around $1 billion dollars worth of economic and social harm because of illicit drugs but about $3 billion of the same because of alcohol. However, at the risk of seeming like a one trick pony, I’d like to reflect on the methamphetamine issue again and review progress to date.

Now in case you don’t know I’ll recap my own background, and explain my stance on this substance, methamphetamine, both to provide a context for what is to follow and to allow you the opportunity to bail and click elsewhere. I’m a life member of the Black Power gang (joined in 1972), hold a Masters degree in social practice, and am a recovering bureaucrat of some 20 years service

With a face and views that didn’t fit in the then emergent, and now actual, ‘public service’, in late 1999 I was sent off on my own. Despite all the niceties of managed egress it always feels like a kick in the guts when long term service ends. My introduction to methamphetamine came not long after the end of that period of service when I was feeling pretty low and run over. It came to me as if I was 18 again, bright, sparking, bullet proof and ready to take on the world. I became an instant and committed user. Meth is New Zealand’s second- most popular illicit drug because, for a start, the pleasure it brings outweighs the immediate consequences. I’d lit a wick – this is true whether you take it a little or a lot – and, accordingly, like every other user, slow fuse or fast fuse, the end was nigh. I had to make a change.

We often tend to ascribe dramatic change to some sort of epiphany, a moment in time when truth was revealed. In reality, rather than a Damascene insight, these moments of truth may equally be the tipping point of a thousand nudges and shoves by loved ones, family and friends and, I accept that in my case, this is what occurred. My lady Taape is a ‘no fuck around’ sort of partner and not given to putting up with crap – I think this captures the spirit of her views. Motivated, I looked around and saw, as if at a poisoned waterwell, victims galore. I put down my pipe. I still remember the internal argument, the caution to myself that I might need it one day, and the deliberate action as I pushed the pedal on the kitchen bin and smashed it

Still, in public terms, I never really came to my senses until the fried fiends finally finished my brother Hone Day. He was another Black Power member, a young chief for whom I held much respect. He rejected drugs and alcohol but somehow he succumbed to the allures of this initially delightful but ultimately disastrous chemical. Hone, in a state of methamphetamine – induced psychosis took his own life. The shock of Hone’s death served as a galvanizing iron. As his friends, brothers, sat around his coffin to talk and reflect, what had previously seemed to be an unfortunate cluster of suicides and unusual deaths began to emerge as a tragic pattern with one common denominator: use of methamphetamine.

This was in 2002. We may have been more innocent, naïve, or just overwhelmed by the impact of Hone’s death, but, in any case, the Black Power, as a group, agreed to come together and in one way or other take a cautionary stance against use of methamphetamine. Meth was still a Class B drug and its deleterious effects were less well known. I say a ‘cautionary stance’ because the most the crews will be prepared to do was establish a ‘kaupapa’ – a position against use – within their own ranks, but they won’t (and, pragmatically, can’t) exercise control over another chapter. There was however explicit agreement that I was free to campaign against the use of methamphetamine – the more cynical leaders may have thought “good on you, go for it, and argue against enjoyment in general while you are at it you dumb Mick!” Well I’m no wowser, and hold what might be described as liberal views about recreational substances and life in general. But, since Hone’s death, I have pursued an active and relentless campaign to build community resilience against meth and to convince people to give it a miss.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a team amongst the Mongrel Mob, the Notorious chapter, led by Roy Dunne, were having a similar realization. Roy has been very much influenced by Sam Chapman, who provided him with mentorship based on a fusion of new wave Christianity and ancient Maori values. Roy started working with his members to reflect on their general health and to understand that the high mortality rate amongst their friends and whanau was a result of lifestyles. If the Blacks were topping themselves the Mob were dying from high revving hearts. Again, a common causal factor was use of methamphetamine.

So here we have small but influential groups within the two major Maori gangs, the Blacks and the Mob, presenting a rationale for change, and building a constituency of members committed to a broad notion of whanau ora – families that are healthy, wealthy, and wise.

At this point the reader might say, as many others do, ‘what bullshit, this is just spin’. The prevailing majority view is that gangs (aka ‘Maori youth’ for most NZers) are synonymous with meth manufacture and distribution and rely on these activities to gather vast sums of wealth. Like most such social beliefs this view holds some truth – many of my brothers (and sisters) are players in the meth market. In the main, from my observation, this is to maintain the management of their personal addictions rather than accruing wealth. I may mix with a lower caste but I don’t see rich gangsters.

A closer look at the market reveals a different profile of those involved especially at the importation and first level of distribution. For instance if we reflect on those who our border guardians are identifying and our Courts are convicting as importers we find that they are almost exclusively Asian. No Treaty claimants there. This presents the first big gap in our current capacity to combat meth. You might recall back in mid 2008 when there were street marches in Auckland facilitated by an Asian “anti-crime” group. The march was essentially directed at Maori and other Polynesian youth and called on the Government for bigger hammers and more of them.

If there is a link between street crime such as burglaries and methamphetamine usage – and I think that this causality has been clearly established through Dr Chris Wilkins’ research for the NZ Police – then the way the NZ Asian community might best defend itself against this crime is by joining in on the broad movement to combat meth. Maori leaders like Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia and tribal elders are constantly challenged to step up in taking a stance against family violence and child abuse and such, but there is no such expectation made of Melissa Lee or Pansy Wong and the Asian community leadership when it comes to meth imports by their kith and kin.

Moreover, at a systems level we are weak with our consciousness-raising about meth amongst Asian immigrants and students. We have only recently started to provide advisory material on the topic at the points of departure from Asia and entry to NZ. We have yet to form Asian advisory groups to encourage their communities to exercise moral suasion on their own members and to tap into Confucian and other value sets that educe behaviours consistent with citizenship and that demonstrate loyalty to their new home, Aotearoa New Zealand. We have to recognize that the methamphetamine market is dynamic and that there are strong push and pull factors at play. Based on research Dr Chris Wilkins concluded some time back that the NZ meth market had leveled out and was in the ‘maturity’ stage of the product lifecycle. We had moved from an epidemic to an endemic state.

Marketing theory holds that we would then normally expect a slow decline in demand unless there was ‘product re-launch’, a drop in price, a new feature, or a change in the production and distribution chain. I suspect that this has happened. My best intelligence is that what was once a bottle neck at the cooking stage (where the raw material precursors are processed to produce crystal meth) has been ‘syndicated’ by way of cooking schools where the craft of conversion is shared and manufacturing options are multiplied. Supply is strong and I anticipate that fresh research will show a new upward trend in usage. Because the street price has remained stable regardless, I anticipate that there is a new economy in play where a bigger share of the wealth is being gathered at the point of manufacture and the next tier of distribution. So everyone on the supply chain is a winner except the poor mug end-user.

And who might that be? Chris Wilkins’ work suggests the mean age of the typical user is 27 years of age. From my observation meth does not seem to be widely used by younger teenagers but the profile starts to build amongst an older segment of youth on the bridge of adulthood – say 18 years of age or so through to the fifty year olds (and beyond). Users seem to be mainly male but a Iarge number of especially younger women use as well.

In terms of ethnicity there seems to be a disproportionately high representation of Maori, younger and poorer than their Pakeha fellow users. Mike Williams, the Chief Executive of the Stellar Trust describes the New Zealand meth-user profile as looking like a weightlifting dumbbell. He says that there is a big ball of younger, less well off Maori on one end and an equal size ball of relatively wealthy older Pakeha users on the other end with a connecting bar of users running across New Zealand society. The Stellar Trust commissioned UMR to undertake research about awareness levels about and attitudes towards meth use in New Zealand and intend to release their findings early next month. Both Police and Ministry of Health are also engaged in meth use related research projects with Massey University so as time goes on we will get more clarity and less hype about the situation.

Regardless, as long as New Zealanders want to use methamphetamine and are prepared to pay an encouraging enough price then there will be suppliers. This is the immutable truth of the law of supply and demand. In the first five months of this year our border control agencies interdicted methamphetamine precursor products equal to the amount seized in the entire previous year. As a trend that’s bad enough, but when one takes into account that ‘world best practice standards’ for Customs’ interdiction is only 20%, and then multiply the quantities seized by a factor of four, the quantum that gets through is a cause for great concern.

Also consider that meth use is beginning to emerge as a global issue. Unlike cocaine or heroin, production isn’t reliant on material from a particular geography – it can be made anywhere as long as there is access to the constituent chemicals. A few years back there was a clan lab bust in Fiji. The cooks had produced crystal meth equivalent to a billion dollars in value on the street. If you were running a troubled island economy and had no love for Australia or New Zealand then….ouch!

At the moment our border issues are around unprocessed ContacNT which is easily and legally sourced, usually in China, and brought here as the key precursor for conversion into crystal meth. But the market is so dynamic that could change overnight. So, kia tupato on that front. And we have already seen that raising the penalty tariff, as we have done by reclassification of meth to a Class A prohibited substance carrying penalties of up to life imprisonment, hasn’t scared away importers, cooks or distributors. Equally, we have beefed up our ability to detect, track and interdict inbound shipments of meth or its related precursors, but the very volume of imported goods is such that unless we were to look inside every stuffed toy (or whatever means) we’re constrained there too.

So if we can’t stem supply, somehow we have to drive down demand. We will achieve that when people care enough to ‘self-prohibit’, that is, they choose not to use the stuff. At this point the consequences of the law become another aspect of the rationale to quit or not to use in the first place. Other drivers to quit are issues around health, work, money, and relationships. I think it is this latter aspect – the profound negative impact on interpersonal relationships – provides the point of differentiation between meth and most other recreational substances, both licit and illicit.

I’m just a layman but from what I understand meth usage amongst other things damages the synapses that enable the natural transfer of our brain chemicals, and, in particular, the natural uptake of and access to dopamine. In fact there is a meth-related illness called ‘anhedonia’, the inability to experience natural pleasure. To my mind this is why we see people who at one point may have been candidates for mum or dad of the year turn into callous unfeeling childbeaters; see, up until their addiction reared its head, otherwise loving longterm partners turn into feuding fried arseholes; and, witness previously perfectly well adjusted young adults morph into lying, thieving, scumbag, parasites. Meth kills the love button. Meth use and whanau ora are mutually exclusive. There!

So, since John Key put his hand up last year and said “I’ll take charge of this” what’s been done? There was an immediate re-deployment of some 40 frontline staff at Customs. The increased seizures may indeed mean we are doing better than average in that regard. The control of precursors by banning sale of pseudoephedrine based medicines from across the counter sale at chemists has been more complex to implement than was originally envisaged and that initiative seems still locked in limbo. There has been a raft of legislation introduced with the aim of breaking up criminal gangs, preventing money laundering and seizing assets gained from crime: this has involved the reversing of the burden proof and the presumption of innocence in some instances. These create are profound implications for the Bill of Rights and jurisprudence in general and these laws have yet to be rigorously tested in the Court of Appeal, so this is still an area of work in progress.

In the main, the energy has primarily been directed at reducing supply. But, as I’ve indicated, demand reduction through ‘self prohibition’ is probably the only sustainable solution. This is best facilitated by treating the matter as being primarily one of health rather than one of crime and raising awareness about necessary steps towards treatment and recovery. In my experience it looks like most people – lets go for the good old 80/20 split – can get off meth by going cold turkey and relying on the support of family and friends. For those who need clinical treatment the various DHB’s generally have good services available and they are front ended by 0800 787797 Drug Helpline.

Increased Government funds are also being put into providing more residential services and whilst this is good, as always, demand will outstrip supply. MOH have contracted the NZ Drug Foundation to provide a meth help website (methhelp.org.nz) and they have provided an advisory booklet and dvd as support material. I’m really impressed by the content. This is good, non judgmental, practical advice and clever use of short recorded vignettes of users, families, and those in recovery telling their stories and setting the platform for personal change. Furthermore there are over thirty MOH funded CAYAD sites (Community Action Youth and Drugs) with at least two dedicated staff spread across the country. Each site has to have an action plan for building community resilience against methamphetamine.

The project I manage – ‘Mokai Whanau Ora’, which aims to enroll the leadership of the Mob and Blacks in a movement to self prohibit the manufacture, distribution and use of meth – is funded through CAYAD. There are NGO’s in the field, often connected to a faith-based organization, that provide support services and fellowship. There are also private sector operations, like Mike Sabin’s Methcon, that offer consultancy services to businesses facing meth use by staff, and presentations to schools. The ‘new entrant’ is the Stellar Trust, a high profile high influence group headed by Burton Shipley and operationally led by former Labour party president Mike Williams. Paul Holmes is the ‘face’ and champion, and it is stacked with luminaries like Judge Peter Boshier. The Stellar Trust aims for a methamphetamine free New Zealand. When we step back then we can see that there are a large number of players trying to combat methamphetamine. But are we playing as a team and do we have a winning strategy?

I‘ve already declared my bias toward providing education and treatment as a lead response. There’s plenty of international evidence gathered over the past 50 years that the ‘war on drugs’ strategy is a loser. But on the other hand you better have a stick in your hand in some situations. The meth market is dynamic. A supplier with plenty of product can soon stimulate demand by distributing freebies to those who are vacillating, and building a new customer base amongst the curious. Whilst awareness about the deleterious effects of methamphetamine is high in New Zealand, the drug’s seductive characteristics, and the fact that new users can still initially function, leads to a honeymoon period of denial and enables a fresh wave of uptake.

At first tier importation level there are big sums of money at stake, and all along the production distribution chain the wealth is protected, often with firearms. A feature of the Asian importation network is their supply of guns as an additional lure to impressionable second and third tier distributors. Glock pistols are something of a current fashion item amongst the bad boys, and in a recent Auckland bust a dealer was allegedly armed with a machine pistol carried around in a computer bag. We need to be conscious of the possibility of ‘crack’ wars and appreciate the critical role that pro-social street gang leaders play in mitigating this eventuality.

That is one reason I am so supportive of the Mongrel Mob Notorious’ efforts to get rehabilitation services for their members who are addicted. Obviously an important aspect of the meth market is at the interface with the Police. I readily concede that I don’t know what I don’t know, but I was surprised that the two recently busted Asian distribution rings operating out of Skytower were allowed to operate for a long period under surveillance whilst they facilitated distribution of substantial amounts of meth – 3kg (300,000 points and a lot of fucked up Kiwi lives!) in a two month period. They laundered around $20M cash through the in-house pokies whilst authorities sat by. I appreciate that the cops may have been waiting to get a fuller understanding of the market and so forth, and there’s always going to be tension between the needs of the spooks and the wants of the prosecution team, but hell! that $20M of destruction and misery will have created a negative multiplier in terms of family break up, ill health and crime five times that sum.

There’s a similar story I hear at community level where there is common knowledge of meth market activity but the cops seem unwilling or unable to act. This may be because the Police consider that they need firmer or better evidence for a prosecution, whereas the community might well be satisfied if the market was just disrupted and the sellers moved on. In fact a more intelligent application of the principles of social marketing (wherein the ‘costs’ of selling meth were raised and the benefits reduced, and the ‘costs’ of quitting the market were reduced and the benefits of quitting were raised) would help us get a better mix at the interface of the criminal justice (supply reduction) and health sector (demand reduction).

Now try as it might Government will never be able to deliver integrated ‘whole of governmentt’ services from the top. It is not in the nature of the public service beast. Silo behavior is standard operating procedure and brands, turf and budgets are jealously guarded grails. Although John Key has instructed his departmental chiefs to work collaboratively on implementing his meth plan there is no will amongst them for the sort of dialogue that is necessary to resolve the Gordian knot of and intertwined problematics of low Maori economic and social participation, low educational achievement, and high rates of incarceration and drug abuse that are part of the solution to the meth problem. If the Wellington leadership won’t hold the necessary dialogue then there’s not a hope in hell that regional public sector managers will either.

Key is right. An integrated approach is needed and if it won’t come from the top leadership then it must come from the grassroots leadership. And that is what I think is happening. When faced with the same issues and some information communities tend to come to similar conclusions. There is a desire for action. Stimulated in part by the intuitive political parlaying of the Stellar Trust’s Mike Williams a network of community coalitions is starting to emerge, regional clusters, often comprised of otherwise uneasy bedfellows. For instance here in Hawke’s Bay where we are building a campaign for a methamphetamine-free region we are supported both by the left leaning Pilot City Trust and the right leaning Sensible Sentencing Trust. Both major political parties (Labour through Stuart Nash and National though Chris Tremain) have offered use of their election campaign billboards and sites for an awareness campaign we aim to commence in October. The regional commander of the NZ Police has appointed a senior officer to work with us as a point of liaison. The HB DHB has contributed to our communications campaign and we are in dialogue with clinicians and service providers. We intend to present to Rotary Clubs throughout the region.

Similarly we are presenting to Ngati Kahungunu Iwi in early September. This collaboration across organizations and across disciplines presents a potential point of synthesis for what seem to be two implicit required strategies, one being ‘Report’ (supply reduction based on community policing) and the other ‘Help’ (demand reduction based on addiction recovery services and family support). These strategies need to be integrated, but kept discrete, because the doctor can’t arrive with handcuffs. To move this development into a national movement beyond regional ad hoc displays of enthusiasm requires an avante garde, and this is the role I believe the Stellar Trust might best play: they are independent of Government, they have their own income streams, and they present a body of power brokers unrivalled in the sector.

There are broader issues to be resolved around recreational drugs in New Zealand including alcohol and that is difficult when these matters are so highly politicized. The Government seems only mildly interested in the recommendations made by its think tank on alcohol laws. Last year the Minister responsible for these matters, Peter Dunne, told an international symposium held at Te Papa, which was considering amongst other things arguments for the de-criminalisation of cannabis, that this debate would never be held during his watch. In the meantime it seems that we have a broader pan-community agreement around one substance at least, methamphetamine, and that is, let’s give it a miss.