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Muriel Newman: Meth Problem Out Of Control

Meth Problem Out Of Control – And Only Set To Worsen

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

This week, the Column looks at New Zealand’s rapidly spreading methamphetamine epidemic, and asks why the Government did not do something when it first discovered the risks of the problem.

A Massey University study released last week has shown that New Zealand’s methamphetamine epidemic is quickly spiralling out of control. The study has found that drug treatment and enforcement authorities around the country have reported an increase in serious violence – as well as domestic violence – by meth users. Burglary and general crime have also risen significantly, as people become more desperate to find money for drugs.

This research noted that methamphetamines are now being sold in cheaper, smaller quantities. This has facilitated its spread throughout society and is being used by teenagers, boy racers, business people and lower socio-economic groups – not just the traditional dance scene.

Briefing papers I obtained under the Official Information Act confirm that New Zealand now faces a methamphetamine crisis. Prepared last May by the Police Commissioner and the Comptroller of Customs, the papers show that Labour received explicit advice about the problem’s escalation on at least five occasions since 2001.

The 2003 briefing states: ‘The National Drug Intelligence Bureau views the current methamphetamine situation in this country as critical’.

It goes on to claim that: ‘The New Zealand illicit drug situation has altered dramatically in the space of two years. The emergence of a hard drug (methamphetamine) problem from within New Zealand is increasingly portraying an across-the-board major criminal, social, law enforcement and environmental problem for New Zealand’.

Rather than acting decisively at the first warning, the Government has allowed the problem to escalate to explosive proportions. Over the same period the Police have faced a critical manpower shortage – caused by Labour’s cancellation of a series of police recruit intakes just after its election in 1999 – and a funding squeeze, with the Police budget as a proportion of total Government spending being cut each year since 1999. This has contributed not only to the methamphetamine crisis, but also to New Zealand’s rising crime rate.

What smacks of double standards is that this increase in crime has occurred under the watch of a government that was elected in the same year that 94 percent of the public supported a referendum for their government to get tough on crime.

As a consequence of Labour’s soft-on-crime strategy, police have been unable to keep up with the increasing sophistication of the organised crime rings that control the drug industry. According to the briefing papers: “The escalation in transnational and domestic organised crime involvement in the importation, manufacture and distribution of amphetamine type substances poses a serious threat to this country. The current situation is far more significant and far reaching than the impact on New Zealand of the ‘Mr Asia’ syndicate of the late 1970s and early 1980s”.

The Government’s direct response to the escalating crisis – essentially an announcement last May to set up two teams of specialised police to deal with the meth problem, but with a start date of January 2004 … eight months later – is totally inadequate.

Meanwhile, the ESR – the Government agency which carries out methamphetamine forensic investigative work – is so snowed under that Police are being told they may have to wait up to two years for evidence to be analysed. That means a delay of two years before Police cases can be finalised and offenders brought to justice.

The OIA warns that the problem looks set to get much worse: “It is anticipated that New Zealand will unfortunately follow the trend to ‘Ice’. ‘Ice’ or ‘crystal’ methamphetamine is a purified, extremely powerful form of methamphetamine that is generally 90-98 percent pure. The effects of ‘ice’ are similar to ‘crack’ cocaine, with one exception: the effects of crack cocaine last for ten to twenty minutes. Ice is more prolonged at between eight to sixteen hours”.

In a country which does not routinely drug test lawbreakers – whether drivers, burglars, or violent offenders – and is not coping with the present drug problem, the effects of the incursion of a more powerful form of meth will be devastating. It will compound the growing perception that the justice system is now failing law-abiding citizens by being stacked against victims in favour of criminals.

It is imperative that this situation is turned around. Some of the government’s $6 billion surplus needs to be invested in policing: fixing the chronic manpower shortages once and for all; getting on top of the meth problem by establishing dedicated Police teams in each Police district; providing sufficient resources to break organised crime intelligence networks; ensuring scientific forensic analysis is carried out in a timely fashion.

While these steps do not provide the full answer to turning around New Zealand’s escalating drug crisis, at least they would be a sensible start!

Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.

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