Geographic isolation helped shield New Zealand from hard drug trafficking for years but a strong DIY culture and the advent of easily hidden, highly mobile methamphetamine labs are having serious consequences

The five men were always going to stand out in the isolated New Zealand surfing village of Ahipara.

Their inept attempts to launch a nine-metre boat with multiple mechanical problems provided one clue.

The fact they were also offering locals large amounts of cash for help was another.

I knew something dodgy was up, says Peter Furze, a surfer who watched the men try and fail to get their boat into the rough seas off Ninety Mile Beach.

When a new boat was purchased for NZ$98,000 (55,000) in cash and then abandoned on the shore, locals demanded police investigate. Their instincts were right.

Inside the boat, buried in the sand dunes nearby, and in a campervan also belonging to the group, officers discovered nearly 500kg of methamphetamine or P as it is known in New Zealand.

The record haul worth half a billion dollars on the street seized last month has made headlines and focused the countrys attention on its insidious problem with a drug that is easy to make at home and cheaper than marijuana to buy.

Methamphetamine often referred to as the poor mans cocaine has become the class A drug of choice for Kiwis.

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A boat, found on Ninety Mile Beach in New Zealand, containing a record haul of methamphetamine. Photograph: New Zealand police

P is a huge problem here, says Furze. There are so many desolate places you can cook it, so many places to hide away.

New Zealand is 10,000km (6,00o miles) from Bangkok, 18,000km from Amsterdam and surrounded by sea. Hard drugs rarely make it into the country and when they do prices are high and quality is low.

But the advent of pop-up, easily transportable labs (some that fit inside a suitcase) have made P a booming nationwide business. From holiday homes in Wanaka, to milking sheds in the Waikato, many Kiwis have turned their hand to DIY meth manufacture.

I think because Kiwis are so innovative in so many good ways, that can lead to us being innovative in bad ways as well, says Anita Meyer, a former P cook from Auckland.

We definitely punch above our weight in what we manage to do in a fairly restricted drug scene.

Anita
Anita Meyer, a former P cook in Auckland. Photograph: Anita Meyer

Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, believes New Zealanders have proven themselves to be skilled drug manufacturers over many decades a talent born out of distance and necessity, and honed through years of trial and error.

We are very good at covertly growing cannabis, we are very good at cooking P … this all links back to New Zealands do-it-yourself drug culture, says Bell.

Labs blow up, labs get busted, but they always re-emerge. The rise of recreational drug use in New Zealand is quite unique and deeply founded in our geographic isolation.

The socioeconomic diversity of P addicts in New Zealand suggest it has become an everymans drug; as attractive to high-powered businessman as it is to adolescents.

New Zealanders are quite trusting and thats usually a good thing, says Miles Stratford from MethSolutions, a meth testing company in Auckland. But that can make them quite blind to what is happening around them and how entrenched the P problem has become.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, New Zealanders are among the highest users of methamphetamine in the world, alongside Australia and parts of south-east Asia.

The most recent figures from the New Zealand government indicate that P use has declined from a high of 2.7% of the population using in 2003, to fewer than 1% of the population today.

But according to Det Supt Virginia Le Bas, national manager of organised crime, her officers on the street are reporting increasing evidence of P use be it equipment discovered in private homes for manufacture, or being called to violent incidents involving P users.

Overall we are seeing less clan labs [secret drug labs] in residential homes, but more mobile labs and they can be everywhere and anywhere, all around the country, she says.

And there is the perception from police in the field that there is more meth in the community, more utensils discovered for cooking, and attending more violent crime involving meth addicts.

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Bottles used in the manufacture of meth in a New Zealand home-based P lab. Photograph: NZ Police

According to Massey Universitys senior drug researcher Dr Chris Wilkins, P manufacture and use is concentrated in Auckland and Christchurch another disastrous side-effect of 2011s deadly earthquake.

Interview subjects in both cities say P is easier to purchase than marijuana and can usually be bought in under an hour.

Ian Hastings, a retired senior drug squad detective, says the P epidemic concerns him more than any drug he encountered during his long career with the police.

We are surrounded by water and have strong border controls that have always made it challenging for drugs like cocaine and heroin to get into New Zealand, he says.

In some ways that is a blessing, but in many other ways its not.

In the 1970s New Zealand was flooded with heroin through the infamous Mr Asia drug syndicate. But when police shut down imports, addicts were left desperate for a fix.

If we cant get it well make it ourselves, says Hastings. And thats how homebake came about.

Homebake was a substitute for heroin. Codeine tablets available from chemists were cooked up and purified into morphine most commonly, or heroin.

According to police and users at the time it was never a big money-spinner or a very sophisticated operation. But it was an early indication of what was to come.

Anne Carroll, a former drug addict, works as a nurse in a drug rehab facility, where 67% of her patients are meth addicts.

Carroll had returned home to New Zealand from Australia to ween herself off heroin. But she found the temptations of homebake too great to resist.

The bad addicts would go home to New Zealand to try and get clean, but then Kiwis invented homebake, recalls Carroll.

It could be made overnight, it was really easy. And it was fascinating because it was something that was peculiar to New Zealand.

At Higher Ground, a leading drug rehab centre in Auckland, the majority of clients are addicted to meth. Despite government assurances that the P epidemic is waning, the waiting list to get into Higher Ground is months long, as it is for other drug treatment centres around the country.

In our experience there are more P addicts every week, they are more addicted, and they are getting younger, says director Johnny Dow.

At the clinic, situated in suburban West Auckland, many of the recovering clients are baby-faced. The dining room looks less like a treatment centre than a residential university hall.

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A home-based P lab in New Zealand. Photograph: NZ Police

P is so destructive because addicts hit rock bottom so much quicker and so much younger, says Dow.

Before, heroin addicts could last 20 or 30 years before burning out, but P wears addicts out in five to 10 years. Its effects are just horrendous and I dont think weve seen its peak yet.

Former P cook Meyer was a poor science student in high school and says the demand for her P cook-ups was a major ego boost.

When people hear youre a good cook, word spreads and suddenly youre in demand, she says.

Since New Zealand gangs have taken over the large-scale production of P, both in-house and imported, the police have turned their attention to the increasingly close ties between New Zealand gangs and overseas drug syndicates, particularly in Asia. Former detective Hastings has followed the rise and rise of P with a heavy heart. He has no idea how, or when, it will end.

The taste for P is a reflection of the age we live in, says Hastings, who now runs a casino party business.

We need every experience to be faster, bigger, better, now. Anything criminal that is locally made and produced is very hard to get on top of. And P has no natural ceiling. P addicts rarely die, they just get worse.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/13/making-meth-how-new-zealands-knack-for-p-turned-into-a-homebaked-disaster

Making meth: how New Zealand’s knack for ‘P’ turned into a homebaked disaster
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