This article was originally written for a 2014 issue of M2 magazine. However new numbers that have come out in the intervening 7 years show that things have not changed for the better. Waiting lists for victims wanting to get help for meth addictions are on waiting lists that are now sometimes 5 months long. From 2015 to 2018 the number of deaths related to methamphetamine related toxicity tripled. 12% of kiwis will face a substance abuse disorder sometime in their life. Failing to shape law and services properly around these issues will continue to exasperate the issue. As such I feel like this article is still relevant enough to post now in 2021.

Another week, another drug bust, another contaminated home. It seems like every other day we’re getting these headlines. But what are we as a country doing about it, and are we brave enough to go to the extraordinary steps to minimise drug abuse in Aotearoa. 

As this report comes together I flick to my homepage and a headline appears for a haul of 900kg’s of meths is dug up in a shipping container in Melbourne. It has an estimated value of $977 million. It’s the biggest in Australian history, and numbers are thrown around the same way you might for a prize catch after a hard days fishing. It comes hot on the heels of reports of a Head Hunter drug bust in late 2016 in Wairarapa going to court. In a sadder case a woman living in her car is funding her habit by also being a dealer. She’s sent to councillors and sentenced to home detention. It’s fine, her home is on wheels.

Drugs are of course nothing new. Amphetamines have always lurked around in the form of speed or one of it’s variants. 

In the mid 90s Meth hit the scene and quickly grew in popularity. By the mid 00’s it’s use peaked. At that time kiwis became among the highest users of meths in the world. It hit Oceania hard, 2.7% of adults in Australia and the Marshall Islands had used Amphetamines. This wasn’t a drug just targeting the down and out either. 2.1% of the adult Kiwi population had used meth. It’s just as popular with the Mad Men style boardroom types as it is with bored kids, and why wouldn’t it?

The rush hits you and you can feel everything. All of a sudden what you considered to be “life” before is just a grey imitation of THIS. It’s a vacation from reality where even sex feels a thousand times better than it did in your washed out version of reality.

And then of course you crash, and you spend the next few days scratching around feeling uncomfortable and awful. Unable to concentrate on distractions.

In a report from the Ministry of Health amphetamine use has dropped to .9% in 2015. So why is it still receiving so much hype in the headlines, and what caused the dip?

 According to Ross Bell, Executive Director at the New Zealand Drug Foundation a few things are happening. First of all there’s the funding going into fighting our drug culture.

“The Governments recent efforts to put more money into treatment are paying off but there’s still a long way to go.”

But also the numbers can be skewed by new synthetics hitting the scene, lowering numbers on amphetamines, but not on drugs as a whole.

“New drugs are on the market, synthetics like bath salts for example.” Bell tells me. “Another thing that’s happened is that people have seen the real problem meth has caused. They look around and see their friends who have taken meth get real f*cked up. They don’t use because they’ve seen what the problems are.”

“What we’re seeing now in terms of the new community concern for meth is provincial use. It’s remote and out of the cities. It’s in northland, it’s on the west coast of the south island, it’s in Southland, It’s on the east coast. Those are parts of the country that don’t have treatment services. Drug treatment services are concentrated in the cities. We’re seeing problematic drug use in parts of the country where help isn’t available.”

Talking to Bell he continually comes back to the mantra that our culture of drug abuse isn’t a law enforcement issue, rather it’s a health issue. When we start to consider the issue in this light our current methods for dealing with it come up wanting.

“What we’ve found now is that the police are saying ‘we can’t arrest our way out of this problem’, and it’s what we’ve been saying for a long time. Whether it’s methamphetamine or cannabis. Our drug problem is first and foremost a health issue.”

“Police recognise our role in helping reduce the social harm caused by illicit drugs in our communities.” A police spokesperson told M2. “However, this is not a problem Police can solve alone – we work alongside our partners in health, Customs, and other agencies in order to hold those committing offences to account, and help those affected by drugs to get the assistance they need.”

But is this assistance being provided?

“We put to great a proportion of resources into law enforcement efforts, police, customs, the courts and prisons and we have failed for a long time to invest in the health side of dealing with the drug problem.” Bell says.

In a Ministry of Health report a breakdown of funding shows that a total of $351.4 million is spent on drug intervention. Combined $273.1 million goes toward Police and the courts, while $78.3 million goes into the Health side.

In the National Report 2012 by the Mental Health Commission findings outlined noted that about 1.9% of the population (or around 50,000 people) in 2014 had wanted help in the last year to reduce their drug or alcohol usage but had not received it. As a kicker “Pacific people, Māori and people from the most deprived neighbourhoods” were significantly more likely than other groups to want help but not receive it.

“When a person, through all the chaos of their life put their hand up to get help, and are told by the treatment agency ‘you’re on a three month waiting list’. What are they going to do?” asks Bell. “They’re going to keep on using. We lose them and they may never put their hand up again. We miss so many opportunities in New Zealand to provide help when it’s needed.”

As the numbers show, only about 22% of funding goes toward health. Increased funding from the government has shown a positive effect in this area, but more is needed. 

Labour Health Spokesperson and MP for Dunedin North, David Clark told M2 “Drug use can never be an excuse for crime.That said, support for those wishing to deal with these addictions needs to be strengthened. 62 per cent of people in prison have had a mental health or addiction issue in the twelve months prior to being admitted. 90 per cent of those in the prison system wrestle with a Health of addiction issue sometime in their life.”

“Unfortunately, mental health and addiction issues have felt the squeeze under the current government.” Clarke continues, “They have shut beds in hospitals that were set aside for acute patients, despite the numbers presenting actually being on the rise. And NGOs running mental health and addiction facilities have not been funded sufficiently to meet their ongoing costs. This is one of the consequences of the government’s $1.7 billion in cuts to the health sector over the last six years.”

“This is about where you put your effort. Is it the fence at the top, or the ambulance at the bottom.” Bell tells me. “At the moment we have a government that likes to talk about the social investment approach. They are willing to spend money earlier if it prevents problems later in life. That’s a great theory but we’re not seeing it practice when it comes to alcohol and drug treatment. We’re still spending money right at the bottom of the cliff, which is prisons rather than at the top at prevention.”

The idea is that there will always be supply where there is demand. Just look at old examples such as the prohibition.

So 40 years of cracking down hard on drugs has had little effect in minimising it’s damage to society. Numbers from Stats NZ from  2012 It’s not a unique problem in New Zealand, and other countries are trying alternative methods of dealing with the situation.

America notably in the last few years has started legalising marijuana, a remarkable turnaround for the country. Although their approach has been a strong commercial one with it’s own set of pitfalls. Canada in early 2017 has legalised weed, but in a far more cautious manner, making it only legal for medical use. They’re also building strong laws around it to allow communities to decide where it can be sold or advertised.

In a case more pertinent to New Zealand Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001. It should be stressed that there is a difference between decriminalisation and legalisation. Once I personally got my head around the concept the pieces started to make a lot more sense.

People caught with small quantities of drugs are referred to a treatment program or given a fine. They don’t receive jail time or any sort of criminal record.

Drug related deaths in Portugal are now among the lowest in the world and over the last 15 years, the feared spike in drug use in the country has failed to materialise. Rates of continued drug us among adults went from almost 45% in 2001 down to just under 30% in 2012.

New cases of HIV and AIDS among drug users has also significantly plunged from a combined number of 1600 in 2001 to under 100 in 2012.

An interesting side effect is that the use of legal highs and synthetics is extremely low, since people can get regular weed, why bother with the freaky tweaked stuff?

In the 2016 report for National Drug Policy 2015 to 2020 by the Ministry of Health one slated plan for 2017/18 is to “Develop options for further minimising harm in relation to the offence and penalty regime for personal possession within the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.” Which may be a step in the right direction.

But it’s a hard concept to swallow. Our tough on drugs attitude has been deeply engrained in our mindset. It seems antithetical that decriminalising drugs will result in better results than what we’ve been getting from law enforcement. But Portugal’s experiment should make us reconsider. 

“Parents think that ‘yes I don’t want my kids to do drugs, so we need tough drug laws.’ but what’s the side effect of that? The consequence is that a lot of young New Zealanders are getting criminal records for drug use. It screws you up for life, you’re not going to be able to get a job, you’re not going to be able to travel. The criminal approach screws up young New Zealanders and we’re still among the highest users of cannabis in the world. We’ve still got drug problems but we’re just making them worse.”

“If parents thought about this, If your kid had a drug problem and was busted at school with cannabis, would you want them to have a criminal record, or would you want them to get help?”