New Zealand’s talent for drug making has grown out of distance and necessity. Surrounded by oceans, our geographic isolation and tough border controls have forced us to be innovative. Combine this with the ease with which methamphetamine can be produced from readily available materials, and you have the perfect conditions for a nationwide meth problem.
There has been a consistent ‘Do it Yourself’ attitude to drugs across New Zealand history. In the 1980’s the practice of converting painkillers into monoacetylmorphine with home laboratories was exceedingly popular. ‘Homebake’ heroin thus became a characteristic part of New Zealand drug culture. Cannabis is even more so a part of New Zealand culture, with 52% of us having tried the drug. We are also the second most likely country in the world to pick our own magic mushrooms. Our Kiwi ingenuity is a source of pride in many ways, but it has also contributed towards one of our most shameful issues. It is now rare that a week goes by when a news article is not released about the impact of meth in New Zealand.
An estimated 0.9 per cent (26,400) of New Zealanders used methamphetamine in 2014-2015. However, most police officers believe the real number could be much higher. Some suspect that a large proportion of alcohol-related violence is actually caused by meth. However, without testing it is impossible to tell. People do not tend to admit to methamphetamine use. Being a class A drug, admission to use comes with massive social stigma and even worse criminal penalties.
It is interesting to note that the vast majority of meth production occurs in the upper North Island. Only nine per cent of labs were found in the South Island between 2010 and 2015. The majority (69 per cent) were found in the upper North Island. Studies have been unable to identify any consistent predictive factors for meth production in a community. However, the data points largely towards a combination of area deprivation and availability of rural land. In these areas, meth is often easier to get and cheaper than cannabis. Some claim it is even easier to get than coffee in the morning, as you can have it delivered to your doorstep.
A very brief history
Like most illegal drugs, Meth was originally an over-the-counter pharmaceutical drug used for medical purposes. It was brought to life by Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893, initially sold in inhalers to assist asthma sufferers. The product proved ineffective and meth was largely forgotten until it re-emerged during WW2 as Pervitin. Pervitin was sold to the public with similar marketing as Berrocca; a product to increase focus and wakefulness. Pervitin enjoyed commercial success during this period. The controversial book Blitzed, by Richard J Evans, even claims that the brutality of Nazi soldiers was fuelled almost entirely by Methamphetamine addictions. 
Post-war meth use had less to do with Nazis, and more to do with housewives. Several companies patented methamphetamine-based products as weight loss pills. These were outlawed in the US by 1970 and remained relatively unused for some time, until they emerged in crystal form in the 1990’s as the drug we know today as ‘Meth’ or ‘P’.
The neuroscience of meth
Methamphetamine is a clear, crystal-like compound. It can be smoked, dissolved in water and injected, or swallowed. The substance stimulates a release of dopamine, the same chemical which is released when we fall in love. This stimulates a rush of euphoria and intense energy, which only lasts between 2 and 5 minutes. In lab experiments, sex caused dopamine levels in animals to rise from 100 to 200 units. Methamphetamine, on the other hand, caused a release of 1,250 units.
Meth gives its users intense feelings of self-esteem even after the initial ‘rush.’ You lose weight, you are more productive, and your self-image improves. But these positive effects are short-lived, and have a nasty flipside. The ego-driven fantasies turn into paranoid delusions of persecution and victimisation. Users may become abrasively self-centred, cutting into other people’s conversations and believing that everything is about them. Furthermore, because methamphetamine is a neurotoxin, over repeated use it depletes the brains’ dopamine reserves and damages its ability to produce more. As a result, former meth users may never feel the same levels of joy as their pre-meth days. One user speaking for Radio New Zealand says; “it’s like you’re only assigned a certain amount of happiness in life, and meth uses it all up.”
As parts of the brain become numb to the once-pleasurable effects of methamphetamine, the temporal lobe actually becomes more sensitive to the drug. When stimulated, the temporal lobe produced heightened feelings of fear and anxiety. Users become paranoid trying to trace the source of the anxiety. They feel that they are in danger, but they don’t know why. This is part of the cause of the violence associated with meth.
Most of us have seen the ‘faces of meth’ campaign or something similar. Before and after pictures show the devastating affect meth use one one’s appearance. But the outward indicators of meth use pale in comparison to the bodily damage it causes. Regular use causes permanent damage to the brain, causing memory loss and lack of motor skills. Other effects include sexual dysfunction, tooth loss, extreme weight loss, paranoia and hallucinations.
If only 0.9% of us use it, why do I keep hearing about a P ‘epidemic’?
It seems unfair to use such a charged term to describe something that affects such a small segment of society. But P is particularly notorious because of how destructive it is to one’s life and to those around them. While heroin users can take 20 to 30 years to hit rock bottom, P users take 5 to 10. Any semblance of normality is hard to maintain, as focus on getting the drug takes precedence over health, hygiene, bill payments and parenting. Methamphetamine abuse is now behind almost every case where parents lose custody of their children, says the Grandparents Supporting Grandchildren Trust.
Contrary to popular perception, Meth addiction affects people from all walks of life. In fact, an Australian study states that a quarter of meth users are white collar professionals, including doctors and lawyers. It appears the prospect of superhuman energy is seductive no matter who you are. But even high income is often not enough to support a habit. “Six years ago I had two houses, and I was paying the mortgage on both of them,” muses Taz, an interviewee for the New Zealand Herald, “I’ve since been homeless on and off four years, and I’ve been in an out of jail for probably two years of those four years.” As tolerance increases, so does expenditure. Addicts can spend thousands in a day trying to outrun the comedown. As desperation sets in, addicts crystallizing their own spit and urine is not unheard of. In terms of policy reform, understanding that meth addiction can happen to anyone is key to driving change.
Can meth use be tackled with policy?
Tackling drug-related issues with policy is notoriously difficult. Like any drug, people use meth for a number of reasons, in a number of ways. Not all users are addicts; many use recreationally without ever becoming hooked. Human relationships with drugs are complex and multi-faceted, extending beyond simple ‘law and order’ explanations. And with financial incentive to sell so high, it is unlikely New Zealand will ever completely eradicate the drug.
What is clear is that the traditional method of locking users up is unhelpful. Radio New Zealand notes that meth is all too easy to find in prison. Addicts and former addicts cannot trust themselves to even be near the drug. But in prison, one has a lot of idle time to sit and think, often locked in a cell with drug users. In terms of combatting addiction, prison can be the worst place for addicts. The combination of poverty, low impulse control and violence caused by meth means that users often commit crimes and are sent to prison when they desperately need rehabilitation. New Zealand police are already leaning towards a more therapeutic approach, however. Earlier this year, New Zealand Police sent out a text to suspected meth users offering several avenues for help, while assuring that they would not be prosecuted.
Drug reform in general is rumoured to be on the cards for this year’s electoral debates. In April, the Drug Foundation hosted a parliamentary symposium on the topic of drug policy reform. This sparked conversation about the possibility of overhauling the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, in favour of a heavily regulated legal market. The Drug Foundation spoke positively of Portugal’s drug policy in their model drug law proposal. Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001 and invested in prevention and harm reduction.The effects have been overwhelmingly positive, and drug use amongst people aged 15-19 has dropped. While most New Zealander’s are open to the idea of decriminalizing cannabis, the same might not be said for meth. There is a risk that decriminalization could lead to a more relaxed attitude around the drug, which in turn could increase use.
If community tolerance towards meth correlates with clandestine laboratory presence, then educational campaigns may be effective at changing community attitudes towards use and production. The fact that clandestine laboratories are found frequently in northland and rarely in the south suggests that a community-based approach may be the way to go for the time being. Behind law reform, changing attitudes from police and the general public may be the single most instrumental factor when it comes to treating New Zealand’s meth problem.
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