A slideshow of before-and-after pictures plays against the backdrop of a black velveteen wall. A pretty girl; now she’s covered in spots. A shaggy-haired bro; half his hair has gone. A suited-up businessman; drenched in sweat.
The carousel of the grizzled, broken and frightened was part of the Faces of Meth campaign that played out in Life Education vans across intermediate schools in New Zealand. It was 2005, and the campaign had blossomed far from its beginnings in Portland, Oregon, in a global effort to deter kids from the new horror drug causing unprecedented levels of crime and violence. But plastered on walls and humble pinboards of the Waikato school I attended, the hyperbolic images received only casual interest.
Hamilton, with its lack of a proper city centre in favour of awkwardly arranged blocks near Te Rapa, is a magnet for methamphetamine. The gangs based there—Bandidos, Outcasts and various chapters of the Mongrel Mob, all of whom have had dealings with sources in this story—run extensive operations.
The same kids who watched Life Education’s star puppet, Harold the Giraffe, widen his maw in shock at a photo of a drug addict have since grown up to use, deal and cook methamphetamine.
The drug and the associated paraphernalia are more accessible than most people think. The Rota shop on Victoria St (“we supply your funky needs”) sells ‘aromatherapy’ pipes. “They are meth pipes,” says Brad*, a former student of a Catholic school in Waikato who went on to live with Mongrel Mob prospects and help sell the drug we were taught to avoid.
(* Names have been changed.)
Methamphetamine is a clear, crystal-like compound that comes in many forms. It can be swallowed (wrapped in tobacco paper to avoid cuts), dissolved in water and injected, or smoked in a glass pipe. It works as a stimulant, releasing high levels of dopamine—the same chemical responsible for the euphoric feelings when you score a goal or fall in love. But, because it’s a neurotoxin, it damages the brain by affecting its ability to produce dopamine and serotonin naturally, which is why withdrawal is so hellish for those trying to extract themselves from the grip of the drug.
Long-term use can result in mood swings, aggressiveness, insomnia, hallucinations and, in the worst cases, untimely death.
Meth isn’t a new drug. It was first manufactured by a Japanese organic chemist more than a century ago, and later used in low doses to enable Luftwaffe pilots to stay alert during sorties in World War II. During the 1950s, pills containing methamphetamine were advertised to upper middle-class mothers in the United States to increase energy, reduce weight and improve “perkiness”.
It can also be manufactured at home. Finding out how to make it is as simple as typing the keywords into Google. Even if you don’t have internet, both Paper Plus and Whitcoulls stock The Anarchist Cookbook, which, among other illegal things, has step-by-step instructions for wannabe cooks. These DIY approaches require pseudoephedrine, a controlled substance in New Zealand, but available from pharmacies under prescription as medication for the relief of cold symptoms. Most other items used in the cooking process can be found in an average kitchen: hot plates, rubber gloves, glass jars, coffee filters. ‘Cooks’ extract the pseudoephedrine and process it with a variety of chemicals from batteries, fertiliser, brake cleaners and iodine.
As a result, clandestine methamphetamine labs, or ‘clan labs’, sprung up throughout the country after 2002, using these and other significantly more sophisticated methods to manufacture meth. By 2005, the drug was truly established in New Zealand society, resulting in scores of properties contaminated by the manufacturing process and the prompt addition of meth education to the curriculum. Furthermore, both methamphetamine and its chemical precursors were entering the country from overseas, mainly Asia, and mainly as a cold and flu medication called Contac NT—hidden in sofas and household appliances, bicycle frames and batteries.
From Ponsonby to Paeroa, there was no avoiding it.
With his spiky hair, Rip Curl clothing and taste in pop punk music, Brad was a pretty cool guy when I met him as a pre-teen. His parents let him hold parties at his house, and there we discovered Truth or Dare, which opened the door to a world of experiences that we may not have been ready for.
Brad, now 24, was the kind of kid who sought a challenge. He was a good reader, a great athlete. At 19 years old, he moved into a Hamilton East house that he describes, politely, as a party flat. Two of the young men he was living with were prospects for the Mongrel Mob—a gang with a significant hold on Waikato’s meth scene—and they were dealing on its behalf. Brad himself wasn’t one to judge; he was doing business, too, initially just “pingers and weed”, but his sales graduated to meth.
Brad didn’t hesitate to be interviewed for this story. One November night, during his trip to Auckland for a football match, we sit cross-legged on my bed and launch into our most daring Truth or Dare yet.
“The first time I tried it, it scared the shit out of me. Not because it was a bad trip but because I f*cking loved it,” he says.
“You know that feeling when you’ve just done something that scared the shit out of ya but then you’ve done it? You’re ‘Woo-hoo’, hyper as, blood pumping, heart pounding. That massive boot up the arse from adrenaline.”
He started doing meth because: why not? His sister—a psychiatric nurse at the time—was using it socially. He’d moved into a house where it was readily available and had tried every party drug Hamilton had to offer. His one rule was never to buy it—that was a slippery slope to addiction, he figured—and instead he smoked socially every weekend and would exchange tinnies in return.
“Everything has a scent, and methamphetamine smells a bit like cat piss. It’s the ammonia,” he says. “Pills have their own scent as well but it’s different because you don’t know what’s being used to fill them up—it could be chalk, washing powder, anything. When it started becoming really expensive, we just stopped buying pills, because they went from $50 for a good pill to $60 for a decent pill. Then $40 artificial drugs all round.”
Officials believe the street value of meth to be around $1 million per kilogram in New Zealand, but most people spoken to for this story—including dealers—put the price substantially lower, at between $300,000 and $350,000 per kilogram.
A 2009 Household Drug Survey by the Ministry of Health reported that 2.1 per cent of adults 16–64 years of age had used amphetamines in the past year, or 53,900 people. In response, National launched an action plan called Tackling Methamphetamine. The issue was deemed serious enough to warrant being run out of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, instead of Justice or Health.
The plan focused on breaking down the supply chain at the border, and crucially, banning over-the-counter sales of cold and flu medicines that contained pseudoephedrine. It would also provide greater support for those intervening and treating users of the drug.
Late last year, the Ministry of Health released a new survey, reporting that 0.9 per cent of adults aged 16–64 had used amphetamines (26,000 New Zealanders). Of recently apprehended detainees, 30 per cent have used in the past year. Māori are nearly twice as likely to be users.
The government claims to have halved methamphetamine use. However, not everyone is convinced by the decrease, and neither of the surveys included people in prisons, hospital or the homeless, reasoning that “as these populations comprise a relatively small proportion of the total population, the impact of omitting them is likely to be minimal”. The methodology for the surveys also differed in the way they were administered, the context, the response rate and question wording.
It was hoped that cutting off supply would lead to an increase in price, but sources contacted for this story suggest that prices haven’t gone up, and in some areas, they have actually reduced. Official figures agree: according to the annual Tackling Methamphetamine Progress Report, police detainees last year reported a decline in gram prices, particularly in Whangarei, Wellington and Christchurch.
“Most dealers I know buy in one- or two-ounce [28 grams] lots and break it down. That way if you sell grams only, you still make $5000 off an ounce,” says Mike*, an Auckland bartender and dealer. “As a regular smoker, you tend to hang with other smokers and share the cost in a half or gram between four people. It’s as cheap as a big night out drinking.”
Between the users, dealers and former users, the going price for a gram was as low as $350 and as much as $800.
Last year, there were 3177 convictions for methamphetamine-related offences, an increase of 22 per cent on the previous year.
Customs seized 283 kilograms of methamphetamine entering New Zealand at the border—triple the amount seized in 2014 and 13 times the 2013 total. In addition, staff discovered contraband totalling 983 kilograms of compounds that are used in the manufacture of meth, largely pseudoephedrine.
Are government agencies more successfully targeting traffickers, or have the number of offenders increased with demand? Due to the illegality of the imports, the number of players involved and the reluctance to admit use of the drug, the true influence of methamphetamine on New Zealand society is very difficult to determine.
When people talk about meth, one name often comes up: Antonie Dixon.
High on meth, Dixon attacked Simonne Butler and Renee Gunbie with a samurai sword near Thames on January 22, 2003, then murdered James Te Aute in Auckland the same night. Pictures of his wide-eyed and panicked face were widespread during his trial.
This was the defining image of meth for New Zealanders as the drug began to seep into the national consciousness. Since then, it has become a drug that carries a big stigma, which extends to accessing rehab and reporting injuries or abuse.
Most users interviewed for this story feel that meth is “not a hallucinogenic until sleep deprivation starts playing a part”. One dealer told me, “You don’t hear of as much violence involving meth as you do with alcohol. When it is, it’s not while they’re on meth, it’s when they’re coming down.”
However, the police hold a very different view. “It’s one of the most addictive drugs in the world,” says Gary Knowles, a police liaison officer for Southeast Asia.
“Yes, a lot more homicides and family violence are alcohol-related but you can’t deny the addiction rate is huge. It’s bloody hard to get off. The highs begin to get not as high and the lows go a lot lower, so people increase usage and turn to crime.”
People are more likely to admit to alcohol-fuelled violence than meth, says the police national organised crime manager, Detective Superintendent Virginia Le Bas, because alcohol is legal. This presents a big problem gathering statistics. “The violence in this space is far more than what police will see, as it is generally kept quiet and not reported.”
For Knowles, the most harrowing part of the job is watching young women as their addiction rate gets worse, and the generation of kids who grew up in meth labs. “You see a young woman with a fresh face, clean-cut, and in the space of two years she’s drawn, her whole life focused on the next hit. Their self-worth goes, self-belief has totally changed… That’s the saddest thing, you see people who come from good families who end up breaking into mum and dad’s house to steal, or get violent to their parents. You think, ‘How did you end up in this space? What was the tipping point?’”
Today, meth is more readily available in Hamilton than marijuana, says Brad. It’s a statement echoed by users and dealers in Auckland and Wellington. But, after seeing how quickly things went downhill for his friends and flatmates, Brad no longer uses.
He’s come to recognise the signs of meth use—the spots that at first look like acne, teeth grinding, shifty eyes, omnipresent water bottles.
“One of my flatmates had a f*cking horrendous mental breakdown. Lost his shit and ended up going home, back up north. I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive now.”
Another young woman would crash at his flat when she was ready for a come-down. The flatmates may not have seen her for a whole month and she’d turn up at 4am and sleep. She would occasionally engage in a sexual act with Brad’s flatmate for some meth.
“She’d just be living on the pipe with a needle in her arm and f*ck everything else. She was pretty much the reason I stopped smoking meth. It got f*cking real, real quick.”
At one point, Brad and his friends broke the woman out of a psychiatric unit. “At the time we thought it was brilliant, hilarious—the greatest thing. You’re young, dumb and flying. You feel six foot tall and bulletproof… She’s got a child now. She’s still on the pipe.
“That case for me is a no-hoper. As much as I love her as a person, she’s got this habit that will forever make her untrustworthy, unreliable and unhappy.
“In that environment you see two very different extremes: these people who are just in pure bliss, and then on the other side, two days down the track, everyone is starting to hit a wall, there’s no more… you see how low people can go.”
Hamilton Gardens’ native fauna section is not quite as popular as the Chinese Scholar Garden (take a selfie on the dragon), the Modernist Garden (kids splash in the pool while a giant Marilyn Monroe print eyeballs them), the Italian Renaissance Garden (where everyone gets married) or the turtle-less Turtle Lake. So the native fauna section is where I first met Laura*, eight years ago.
In a car, windows rolled up, doors locked, she confidently popped a joint in my mouth and held my nostrils shut. It was a shock. We were just meant to be drinking RTDs.
A friend of a friend, Laura, 22, was younger than everyone in the car but had the street smarts of a Waikato girl raised in one of the suburbs notorious for gang activity—think Fairfield, Dinsdale, Nawton. A social butterfly, she knew how to get fake stamps to get into the student haven Outback Inn, and a lover of the outdoors, she could show up most people in any form of sport, particularly wakeboarding.
Now living in Australia with her partner, Laura says she is starting to heal from a lifetime of damage, including her year-long addiction to meth.
The drug surrounds her family. Two of her uncles are users, one has been in jail for eight years with another eight to go. Her brother—who was the first person I ever saw doing spots when we visited his flat years ago—is recently clean after the gang he joined said he couldn’t use meth. Her sister introduced her to the drug, and they often used it together.
Like Brad, many of Laura’s friends were heading off to university or just leaving high school when she took up meth. It wasn’t just a weekend hobby, though, it was whenever a decent hit was available. She would sit in a room with a couple of friends, “gone to the world for a few days”. Like most users, she bought her meth in points—crystals the size of a fingernail that cost $100. It was free if she pushed a gram (which she could buy for $350) off to a friend.
“I was sort of selling it, in a way, but not really because I never handled it. I would get texts asking if I knew where to get it. I would say, ‘My friends have some here, come round,’ and they would shout me… Vicious circle…
“I was hospitalised twice. I had muscle spasms and no control of my neck twisting around, and then vomiting non-stop. I watched my uncle lose his child, fiancée, the house they were building and his business. I went to visit him in jail and he said it was easier to get meth in than it was out. I lost my best friend to it.”
The meth scene is “huge” in the Waikato, she says. “Every time I come home there’s someone new that’s gone down the path and ruined everything for themselves. I saw a friend covered in bruises after her partner got home from a few days on it and he lost his mind.”
Laura was lucky to have the support of her mother and friends, one of whom pulled her away from the meth scene at a crucial moment. “I spent a lot of time with her, going to the beach and staying with her. Before I even realised, I was clean. I’m lucky, not proud. It’s nothing I ever feel like I actually accomplished. I feel weak that I couldn’t say no to it, and that I was surrounding myself with those kinds of people.
“It’s easier to pull yourself away from it than you think. It’s about the people you surround yourself with, rather than the drug itself.”
It’s a searing-hot day in Bangkok. In the refuge of an air-conditioned cafe, Superintendent Gary Knowles orders a tuna sandwich and an iced coffee. It’s his regular. The cafe is at the bottom of the New Zealand Embassy building, where he has been a police liaison officer for 10 months. His role, established 30 years ago in response to the rise of New Zealand drug baron Marty Johnstone (aka Mr Asia), has already revealed “hundreds” of meth operations between Southeast Asia and New Zealand.
Previously the Canterbury district commander and superintendent in charge of leading the Pike River Mine response, Knowles is no stranger to high-level policing. When meth was about to burst onto the scene in New Zealand, he was detective inspector in charge of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau and the New Zealand Police’s national spokesman on drugs.
“Back then, we had a chance, I really believe, to turn the tide,” he says. “It’s increased hugely from where we came 10 to 15 years ago to where we are now. The sheer volumes, the jobs that we’re working on tracking and tracing, across the globe coming out of China, Taiwan and here [Thailand] are just prevalent.
“We thought we were a country at the back of the world and it wouldn’t hit us.”
Police brought in an expert from Hawaii, Gary Shimabukuro, to talk about how methamphetamine—dubbed ‘ice’ over there—had wreaked havoc in his community. Shimabukuro spoke to officials for three years about an intensely addictive drug and predicted high levels of crime and violence.
“And then it all started to come true,” says Knowles. “We weren’t expecting it to that extent.”
Did police not take heed of Shimabukuro’s recommendations? “Yeah, we did… but… we never thought it would be as it is now.”
Fifteen years ago, it was all about tracking labs across the country as Kiwi cooks attempted to make their own drugs. “Now it’s about tracking imports,” says Knowles. “If you’ve got a contact in Thailand who is West African—because West African crime is flooding us here—you can actually put your money into an account, they’ll send you a track-and-trace number with DHL and it’s delivered to your door. It’s easier than having a box of groceries delivered.”
Aside from direct meth imports, Asian gangs often act as the importers of precursors, which are then sold to gangs in New Zealand for production and distribution.
This is despite dedicated work by Customs and the police to target such operations. Knowles praises legislation such as the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing Terrorism Act, which allows authorities to look at who is sending large sums of money internationally.
As a result of the act, banks have had to report all suspicious transactions since mid-2013 to the police financial intelligence unit—anything over $10,000.
“Our financial intelligence unit is very good at looking at the money trail. Globally, the movement of money is a huge thing in terms of tracing crime, terrorism, people smugglers, traffickers—it all comes down to how they got the money,” says Knowles.
The Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act, which came into force in 2009, allows police to seize assets from suspected criminals without securing a conviction. The onus of proof is then on the defendant to show how the assets were paid for. (Since 2009, police have obtained forfeiture orders over assets worth $31.4 million in relation to methamphetamine offences.)
“When we first started, we had guys who owned farms, companies, yachts, and we had to prove their assets were tainted,” says Knowles. “If you’ve got a Lamborghini and a Porsche and you’re 22, unless mummy and daddy gave it to you, how did you afford it?”
Le Bas says there has been a 37 per cent decline in local meth labs dismantled since 2010, but the large amount of the chemical precursors seized in 2015 (nearly a tonne) suggests that domestic production is still a significant contributor to methamphetamine supply in New Zealand. This conflict of decreasing meth labs and increasing imports could be due to better measures around seizing precursors at the borders. Alternatively, local cooks may be getting smarter at hiding their operations. Due to the illegal nature of the trade, police are struggling to ascertain exactly how widespread the problem is.
More than 60 per cent of charges for the supply and possession of methamphetamine laid last year were issued against the members and prospects of gangs. Gangs are big distributors of meth, and while Knowles says they have enjoyed little tension because of the lucrative market, turf wars are on the rise. The Head Hunters—who have maintained close ties with major drug players in China—are expanding their meth operations nationwide, causing conflict with rival gangs, according to Le Bas.
Both the Head Hunters and Mongrel Mob have strict rules in place for members not to use meth, says one source—“You’re no use if you’re fried”—and those who are caught are at risk of punishment. Many gangs claim to have this rule, but most have limited success in enforcing it, despite heavy penalties.
Living with people prospecting for the Mongrel Mob made Brad realise how widespread meth addiction is in New Zealand.
“I went into it a little bit naive and… a little racist, to be honest. But you’d get people in suits turning up, you’d get people who looked like they had just dragged themselves through the gutter on the way there. It didn’t matter. If it got ya, it got ya.”
The strong relationship between gangs in New Zealand and Southeast Asia is only going to strengthen in the next few years, says Knowles.
“The highest prices for methamphetamine per kilo are made in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. So if you look at it from a purely marketing perspective, if you’re selling a product and looking for new markets, we’re it. We pay top dollar.”
As a result, the government has started working towards introducing a multi-agency Gang Action Plan, on which Le Bas is a lead. While the implementation is “some time away”, it promises to target drug-trafficking networks at the centre of gangs, identify those at risk of joining the gangs, monitor international travel of gang affiliates and attempt to break the intergenerational nature of gang life with prisoner reintegration and rehab programmes to help training, education and housing.
Around 87 per cent of prisoners have known drug and alcohol issues and often go back to using when they are released.
Brad’s step-uncle, from Paeroa, is one of those. He’s had a meth habit for around 20 years and recently came out of jail for more than 100 robberies.
“His biggest problem wasn’t theft,” says Brad. It was meth. “He was getting his $230 from the government on a weekly basis that would go straight to crack, and when that money was gone he would turn to theft. So he went to jail for possession and theft when realistically what should have been the issue was the fact this man has a drug issue. He feels like he can’t survive without it.
“Some people will just never escape it. They will die doing it. They need the choice to be able to go to rehab. They need that opportunity to wake up after their sleep and be like, ‘I feel like such a piece of shit, I want more crack, I can’t afford more crack, I don’t wanna do this shit any more.’”
Owen*, a 52-year-old Wellingtonian, has been addicted to meth for 20 years. He does odd jobs fixing things, but relies on dealing meth to supplement his income.
“Dealing is the only way I can maintain my habit,” he says. “That’s what keeps me moving day to day. You can’t survive on a benefit, let alone smoke cigarettes, top up the phone, gas up the bike and have a meth habit.
“My client base isn’t huge but every transaction has a margin. If someone wants to spend $100 they get 0.07 of a gram and I double my money. If they want to spend $250 they get 0.2 of a gram that costs me about $120.”
“It blows me away how easy it is to get nowadays,” says Owen. “Back in the day, everyone could get pot and a fair few people could get snort—speed—and a few could get pure meth. Now everyone can get pure and no bastard can get any pot! Madness.”
The police don’t worry Owen. He has a “completely trusted” client base and that keeps him out of the firing line. “It’s only people I’ve known for a long time or people that get recommended by truly trusted friends. Being careful on the phone, everything is in code. Also changing phone numbers regularly helps.”
Despite speaking of meth as “just another day at the office”, Owen has many regrets. “I’m a 52-year-old with basically nothing. I have a motorbike, my tools, my mattress and clothes. I don’t stay in one place for long, and live wherever I can—mates’ houses and workshops mainly, wherever I can find a roof.
“It’s become my lifestyle going from deal to deal, fix to fix. I couldn’t see life any other way now. I had a wife, a house, a full-time job in my 20s, but it all went to custard. Now I’m just another wreck at the bottom of the cliff with all the other wasted lives.
“Looking back, I could have been successful and stayed on the right path, but life throws us all some hard times and we all react differently. Drugs were what made me happy so that’s what I do. It gets you off ya arse, motivated. It feels like heaven; all the pain goes away.”
Brad is now working as a builder and hoping to make something of his life. “I could have done more,” he says. “I’m not dumb, I could have gone to university, studied something, played football professionally.”
He stays in touch with a few of his friends from his old life, and thinks it’s important to be there, instead of preaching about the dangers of the drug. “People don’t respond to ‘No’. Just be there. One day they may ask for help and if you’re there you can help them but if you’re gone, who knows?
“It’s the scariest thing to watch someone destroy themselves on the pipe. You just watch people lose their minds and change who they are… for a f*cking rock.”