With official regulation on the horizon for methamphetamine-contaminated homes, JOEL INESON takes stock of how the drug is impacting Kiwis and how that is changing.
“It’s not going away.”
Detective Inspector Greg Murton’s statement about meth in Christchurch is one echoed by many of the agencies that try to combat its impact.
Police are finding larger quantities of the drug but fewer meth labs. It is reaching people from wider age groups and in varying social circumstances.
Demand for rehabilitation and support groups is growing as people seek help for their own or a family member’s addiction to meth – in some cases by more than a third.
Katie Dainter, who runs a methamphetamine help team at Odyssey House, said the overall number of referrals to its national hotline had increased by 38 per cent from 2015 to 2016.
“We’re continuing to be busy and can foresee ourselves being busy into the near future, that’s for sure.”
The service spoke with people referred from other agencies but also took cold calls from users and family members who needed guidance.
“I think the thing we often notice is it’s every demographic. We’ve had people in their 60s, we’ve had people in their 20s and everything in between,” Dainter said.
“It’s people in all sorts of socio-economic positions so it’s a really far-reaching problem.”
Drug-ARM manager and senior clinician Geoff Howard, who has been working with the group since 2002, said recently they had been dealing with meth users “far more than we were before”.
“There’s been a big shift. I remember going back quite a few years and there was a lot of media hype about the P epidemic and we just weren’t seeing it.
“Now, absolutely we’re seeing it.”
Wastewater testing completed over the three months from December revealed meth was the most prevalent drug in Christchurch. Marijuana was not included in among the drugs tested for.
Murton, the city’s organised crime unit supervisor, said there was “a constant flow of methamphetamine coming into New Zealand and spreading throughout the country”.
“But I can’t say whether it’s getting better or worse.
“We’re getting larger hauls in New Zealand but maybe that’s because we’ve detected them, not because there’s any more coming in.”
METH LEVELS TO RISE
Standards New Zealand has formed a committee to consider official guidelines for methamphetamine testing and is expected to release its final recommendation by June.
Interim recommendations were released in November which suggested the tolerance for methamphetamine contamination in homes be raised from the current Ministry of Health (MoH) standard of 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimetres.
If carpets and soft furnishing were removed, up to two micrograms would be allowed, or 1.5 if they remained. The current guideline of 0.5 micrograms was recommended for when there was evidence of manufacture.
The lower level required before a clean up reflected the likely presence of other chemicals used in its manufacture, the ministry report said.
Testing for mercury and lead levels was also proposed where a lab was found.
In October, the MoH updated its guidelines to reflect the recommendations and said they would be superseded by the new standard once released.
A Standards New Zealand spokeswoman said the group developing the standard was considering the comments made following its initial recommendations.
But a lack of consensus around testing methods and regulations had continued to impact property investors and their tenants alike.
TOO LATE FOR SOME
The interim guidelines proposed, which some believe reflect what the standard will contain, were too late for Julia Llewellyn.
The Hawkes Bay woman found her rental property was contaminated after her tenant died. It was believed it was their partner who was responsible for the contamination.
Llewellyn spent $30,000 but later learned the new regulations “probably would’ve meant we didn’t have to spend anything like that”.
“Some of our rooms were under two micrograms . . . we would’ve had substantial differences in our remediation.”
At the other end of the scale, Burnside renter Ralph Martin believed his home was contaminated after he moved in. He asked his landlord to commission a test.
They agreed, but a first test reported no methamphetamine present at the home.
Martin said he was unconvinced with the result due to gradually getting sick over the four months since he moved in. He ordered a test kit online and conducted his own.
After swabs were sent to Australia and returned a positive reading of 0.52 micrograms in the lounge, Martin said he contacted a lawyer to have the matter resolved.
The issue was being dealt with through the lawyer, but Martin said he was not convinced raising contamination tolerances had tenants’ best interests covered.
“I’m pretty annoyed with the way that it’s all panning out – that you can be unwell because of it and nobody wants to know.”
Residue Testing NZ franchise owner Nicola Clark, who was not involved in either of the tests at Martin’s property, supported the new standard.
She said an industry standard would mean “no more to-ing and fro-ing”.
Tests needed to be completed by people trained to administer them and who took into account the room’s airflow and other factors, she said.
“With methamphetamine itself, since it’s dispersed like an aerosol – it’s like fly spray in a way – there can be hundreds of levels on a wall.
“So, depending on where people test, there can be different levels all through it.”
But Canterbury Property Investors Association president Stephen East said, once released, the standard would be up to individual councils’ discretion as to whether it was implemented.
“Each local body could actually set a different standard, which just seems ridiculous when a national standard is set . . . That’s something that needs to be clarified.”
Changes also reignited debate around what a safe level of contamination would be in a home, and what should be required to remedy it if found.
Martin claimed he had suffered “permanent damage” to his health, but scientists have reported that the health risks from living somewhere meth was smoked were similar to one with cigarette or marijuana contamination.
Clark said she believed that, like a virus or the flu, how sick someone got from exposure to contamination could depend on individual’s susceptibility.
“It’s not something where you can say ‘We’re definitely not going to get sick if there’s this amount’.”
FEWER METH LABS
At the same time steps to better regulate contaminated homes were coming together, fewer property owners were finding themselves in need of having remediation work done.
Murton said users of the drug, and volumes recovered, were “not diminishing” as large shipments – like the $500 million haul found in Northland in June – continued being brought in by police and Customs.
He said police were finding “a lot less” meth labs in recent times, “probably because it’s being imported directly”.
“[The large shipments] negate the need for so many clan labs and there has been a drop off in the number of clan labs we’re finding,” he said.
Clark said over the past year she had seen a shift away from residential property test results showing levels consistent with the likelihood meth was cooked, rather than simply smoked, at an address.
But the number of people requesting tests be done on their properties was still on the rise, she said.
“It’s definitely increasing, especially since insurance companies have started to really crack down on it seeing as it’s costing them so much money.”
On top of that, requests were coming in and turning up positive results in cars, Clark said.
“Most of that is coming from buying cars, second-hand cars, and a lot of children have been getting symptoms from being in the car.”
Murton said he had expected the results of the wastewater testing in Christchurch, but it still remained difficult to quantify exactly how many were using the drug.
“It’s like saying how many burglars are out there, or how many arsonists. You just don’t know.”