Northlands meth epidemic and the new approach making a difference

Once dubbed the ”cannabis capital” of New Zealand, Northland now has the dubious distinction of using more methamphetamine than any other region — but use of the highly addictive drug is in decline. Reporter Peter de Graaf goes looking for answers in, of all places, sewage.

A new approach to policing methamphetamine in Northland is being credited with a drop in use of the life-destroying drug.

While Northland — Kaitāia especially — is still far ahead of the national average when it comes to meth, wastewater tests at the region’s sewage plants show use of the drug is in decline.

The results offer a glimmer of hope to Northlanders grappling with the drug’s downstream effects of gun crime, gangs, homelessness and domestic violence.

They have also prompted the Drug Foundation to call for the Northland approach to be rolled out nationwide.

After a pilot programme four years ago wastewater testing was expanded to 46 sewage plants around the country in 2018.

The beauty of sewage testing is that it offers an objective way of measuring how much of the drug is being consumed, then excreted, in any given town.

The tests show an estimated 16.5kg of meth was used in Whangārei in 2019. While that doesn’t sound much, the highly potent drug is sold in “points” of just 0.1g at a time.

Across Northland, the data shows average daily meth use in 2020 was down by just over 10 per cent compared with use in 2019.

While meth use decreased across New Zealand in that period, only Wellington and the bottom of the South Island had a bigger fall.

Data obtained under the Official Information Act suggests the decline in Northland’s meth use may in fact be far greater, because the regional figures are skewed by Kaitāia where wastewater testing started only last year.

When only the Whangārei results are considered the decrease between 2019 and 2020 is 16 per cent.

And if average weekly use in the first quarter of 2019 is compared with the first quarter of 2021 — the most recent figures available — the decline is a massive 58 per cent.

While wastewater testing isn’t infallible, something is clearly going on. But what?

Drug experts put the decline down to a ground-breaking partnership between Northland police and the district health board.

The new approach abandons the decades-old ”war on drugs” in which the state tried to arrest its way out of the methamphetamine crisis.

In 2017 Northland police changed tack by offering addicts help instead of handcuffs, and a law change two years later made it easier for police to use discretion when dealing with small-time users.

These days, when police track down meth users — during drug busts or by going through dealers’ phone records, for example — they are often referred to the health board instead of being charged.

Drug users are contacted within 48 hours to arrange assessment and treatment; each client is also assigned a ”community navigator” who provides support and acts as a liaison between the user, whānau and agencies.

Clients are also offered help to hold on to their jobs or to get into employment, even if they aren’t fully clean.

The new approach, called Te Ara Oranga, or the pathway of wellness, is now getting attention in the rest of the country.

The Drug Foundation wants it rolled out to all of New Zealand. Journalist Paddy Gower, in his TV documentary On P, made the same call.

Drug Foundation chief executive Sarah Helm said Te Ara Oranga, which was police-led but run in partnership with the health board and the community, took a more rounded approach to methamphetamine.

It was already showing promising results, she said.

”Rather than just doing ‘supply control’, which has traditionally been the main tool used by police, it also works to reduce demand and reduce some of the harms. If you don’t reduce demand, you end up with a new supplier popping up every time you catch one,” Helm said.

”So being grounded in community, using all the levers they can, makes it more effective — and somewhat ground-breaking.”

However, Helm said Te Ara Oranga would work a lot better with more investment in health interventions.

”We want to see it funded properly and rolled out around New Zealand in the areas that most need it.”

The Northland District Health Board’s end of Te Ara Oranga is headed by Ian McKenzie, general manager of mental health and addiction services.

McKenzie said the drug, which was mostly controlled by gangs, was readily available in Northland.

”Northland communities are among the most vulnerable in New Zealand. High rates of poverty and crime combine with low rates of education and employment to provide a lucrative market for organised crime to peddle methamphetamine.”

Previous approaches had failed for a variety of reasons, he said.

In the past meth users often had to wait a long time to be assessed, which led to a lack of engagement and non-attendance at treatment.

Te Ara Oranga’s point of difference was that health board staff made a concerted effort to contact clients within 24-48 hours of receiving a referral, which could come from police or screening in hospital emergency departments.

That first contact was often the only chance to engage with drug users, even if it was just for a one-day intervention course.

A similar initiative failed in Kawerau in 2018 because a lack of resourcing meant meth users waited up to a year before help was available. By then the opportunity had long been lost.

Another factor that had previously discouraged meth users from seeking treatment was the fear they could be arrested.

The new approach is not all softly softly, however.

Thanks to a new organised-crime unit, police are pursuing dealers — and the gangs that drive the trade — with renewed vigour.

The wastewater data also helps police know where to direct their efforts.

Shockingly high meth levels in Kaitāia sewage prompted police to target the people they thought were pushing the drug in the Far North town.

After a series of drug raids in January this year, meth levels in Kaitāia wastewater dropped from more than 100g per week in late 2020 to 68g in February this year.

Detective Sergeant Shane Pilmer, of the Northland police meth harm reduction team, said feedback from staff on the ground in Kaitāia was that availability of the drug dropped after the arrests.

Any methamphetamine still being sold was heavily cut (diluted with other substances).

”It shows that if you target the right people in a smaller town it can have a huge impact,” Pilmer said.

Far North mayor John Carter said meth use was driven by deprivation and exclusion.

Society had shut out a whole group of people, effectively telling them to ”sit in the corner, stay out of trouble, and we’ll give you a bit of money”.

The resulting subculture allowed drug use to thrive.

Carter said employment schemes had turned around similar problems in Hokianga in the past, and he was convinced getting people into jobs, and including them in society, was the answer.

He said most drug users were decent people who for various reasons had been drawn into addiction.

Private business was helping counter the problem by, for example, creating large numbers of avocado-growing jobs on the Aupōuri Peninsula, but the council also had a part to play by creating an environment that encouraged businesses to take on staff.

The council was also taking a more direct approach to job creation, for example through the Ngāwhā enterprise park near Kaikohe.

There, council-owned company Far North Holdings, with help from the Provincial Growth Fund, had so far created 30 jobs with 160 more to come in the near future. Hundreds more were expected in the coming years.

■ Wastewater testing provides fascinating insights into drug use around New Zealand. While Northland tops the table for methamphetamine use — followed by other regions with high deprivation levels such as East Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty — it barely registers for cocaine. The ”cocaine capital” of New Zealand, according to sewage testing data, is Auckland, with a per capita use nine times higher than Northland. The biggest users of the party drug MDMA in 2020 were in the Southern police district (Otago and Southland) while the synthetic opioid fentanyl was most popular in Tasman (top of the South Island).

Kaitāia: Meth capital of NZ?

Kaitāia has the highest methamphetamine use of any town in New Zealand, according to wastewater test results.

The tests show struggling North Island rural towns are bearing the brunt of the meth epidemic with Ōpōtiki, Wairoa, Kawerau and Tokoroa filling out the rest of the top five for per-capita consumption. Whangārei came in at number 10.

Drug experts say it’s too early to label Kaitāia the meth capital of New Zealand because the town has been part of the testing programme only since late last year.

The finding has, however, spurred police to focus extra attention on the town’s dealers, resulting in arrests and a drop in supply.

Detective Sergeant Shane Pilmer, of the Northland police meth harm reduction team, said the tests showed just over 100g a week was being used in Kaitāia towards the end of 2020.

At the current price of $400 per gram that meant Kaitāia residents were spending, on average, $41,000 a week on meth, or almost $6000 a day.

Drug Foundation chief executive Sarah Helm said meth was used by a range of people across all socio-economic groups — but the harm was compounded in communities with more poverty, unemployment and other problems.

She said Kaitāia’s wastewater results were a cause for concern but future readings were needed to understand whether the high level was ”normal” for the town or just a blip.

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