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Northland has regained the unenviable title of methamphetamine capital of New Zealand, according to the latest drug tests at the nation’s sewage plants.
Wastewater testing shows Northlanders used 909 milligrams of meth, also known as
P, per day per 1000 people — more than 60 per cent above the national average of 559mg.
The figures are for the third quarter of 2022, the most recent data available.
It’s a sharp change from the start of that year when the Eastern police district, which covers Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti, topped the nation’s meth use with 1105mg per day per 1000 people.
Since then use of the drug has dropped in Eastern and other high-meth areas such as Waikato and Bay of Plenty but increased in Northland.
Overall meth use was down on the peaks of September 2021 and May 2022, which the report prepared by Environmental Science and Research (ESR) for the New Zealand Police put down to a drop in supply.
While meth capital of the nation isn’t a title any region wants to hold, consumption is at least down on the same quarter in 2021 when Northland used a whopping 1152mg per day per 1000 people.
However, the deputy director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, Ben Birks Ang, cautioned that wastewater testing was a relatively blunt way of measuring drug use.
“It can only provide a snapshot in time and doesn’t tell us anything about harm, daily patterns of use, how adulterated substances might be, and whether more people are using a substance, or the same number of people are using more,” he said.
“The numbers tend to jump around a lot, and in a place like Northland, small shifts like a change in supply or population movements around holiday periods can have a big impact.”
Therefore it was important to look for long-term trends rather than focus on any one data point.
If a long-term increase was detected the answer was greater investment in health and support.
“Studies have shown that compassionate, demand-reduction initiatives like Te Ara Oranga that focus on community support and health rather than criminal punishment, are really successful. We need them to be implemented more widely throughout Aotearoa and better resourced in places like Northland.”
Te Ara Oranga is a ground-breaking partnership between Northland police and Te Whatu Ora Te Tai Tokerau, formerly the Northland District Health Board.
The approach, used since 2017, abandons the failed “war on drugs’’ by offering addicts help to get off meth instead of sending them to court.
Within 48 hours of being identified by police, small-time users are contacted by health workers who arrange assessment and treatment. They may also be offered help holding on to or finding jobs.
Dealers, however, still feel the full force of the law.
Despite its limitations, wastewater drug testing has proven useful for helping police target dealers in towns where the problem is worst.
In late 2020, when Kaitāia was added to the testing programme, it was found to have the highest per capita consumption of meth in the country.
It was followed by Ōpōtiki, Wairoa, Kawerau and Tokoroa, with Whangārei ranked at number 10.
The finding spurred police to focus extra attention on Kaitāia’s drug dealers, leading to arrests and a drop in supply.
At that time Kaitāia residents were spending more than $40,000 a week on meth or almost $6000 a day.
Wastewater test results also highlight marked differences in drug preference around the country with socioeconomic factors likely playing a role.
The Southern police district, which includes Dunedin and Queenstown, is the MDMA (ecstasy) capital of New Zealand while Auckland is by far the nation’s cocaine capital.
In Northland MDMA use is low and cocaine barely registers.
In Kaitāia meth made up 93 per cent of hard drugs detected and in Whangārei the figure was 97 per cent.
At the other end of the scale, the hard drugs detected in Queenstown were 71 per cent MDMA, 17 per cent cocaine and just 12 per cent methamphetamine.
Overall New Zealanders used 13.5kg of meth a week in the third quarter of 2022 with a street price of $4.7 million.
The dollar value of the social harm generated was estimated at $14.9m per week.
ESR also tests for heroin and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, but they are rarely found in detectable quantities.