New Zealand's growing meth crisis 'ruining people's lives' - frontline staff

Those on the frontline of New Zealand's growing meth crisis say it's one of the biggest issues facing this generation and the next. 

Meth-use is most prevalent in Kawerau, and wastewater testing shows almost 1 kilogram of the Class A drug is consumed in the Bay of Plenty alone each week.

Kawerau resident Rawinia Whyman was 23 years old when she began smoking meth. Her two eldest children were already taken into care, her father and brother had died from suicide, and her partner died soon after. The high made her feel alive, even if only temporarily.

"I would never drink water or eat food, I would just drink coffee and smoke cigarettes all day, for days on end. Until I was just that 'had it', that I would lie down and fall asleep for days," she said.

She's spent her 28 years living in Kawerau, where the latest data from the police drug testing programme show a 95 percent prevalence of meth in the wastewater - the highest in the country.

In the 23 years Senior Sergeant Tristan Murray has been with the police, he's seen meth turn from demonised to normalised. He said "it's ruining people's lives".

"As police officers, we quite often look at people's driver's license and then look at the person and there's a huge difference in physical wellbeing," he said.

Gang numbers rose 71 percent in the Bay of Plenty between 2016 and 2019, and he believes the P business they've brought with them is cutthroat.

"They have no conscience, it doesn't matter if your family, whanau, or friend, it's all about greed and it's about money, which is really sad."

Kawerau is a small town with a population of around 7000 people. Locals Newshub spoke to said you could find P in one in every two homes here, and if you don't already have it, your next hit is only a phone call away. 

"You could just get it from walking down the street," Whyman said.

But walk the other way down the street and there's help.

Chris Marjoribanks is the CEO of Tuwharetoa Ki Kawerau, an iwi-based public health centre, and he says it's young women in particular who are being increasingly targeted and hooked.

"In a couple of instances, they can't even look at the sample package we use in our education process because it stimulates such a high in their brain," he said.

He's working with the local DHB to explore options for a rehabilitation centre in the eastern Bay of Plenty, so that clients who come to him ready for change aren't left on a waiting list and put at risk of relapsing. This is because most of the time he only gets one chance to make a difference.

"I think the one important shot is the first one," he said.

In response, the Government said residential care may be best for some people. It's committed $1.9 billion to mental health and addiction programmes, and local support services are calling for more residential rehab facilities to be built as a matter of urgency.

Rawinia Whyman and one of her children.
Rawinia Whyman and one of her children. Photo credit: Newshub.

Residential services don't work for everyone, but it worked for Whyman. 

With support from Oranga Tamariki, she was placed on a $27,000 rehab course in Auckland, something she wishes those close to her - who are still using - could access too.

"It breaks my heart because I know there is a way out and I know there could be a better life for them," she said.

Oranga Tamariki follows up on 90,000 reports of concerns each year.

"If we took every child into care or off their parents that was smoking meth, it would be huge, you would be blown away by the numbers," Penny Brooks from Oranga Tamariki said.

She estimates that removing the child would be more traumatic than drug use around 30 percent of the time.

"Personally I know of meth users who are quite capable of caring for their children," she said.

But for Whyman, the best parent she can be is meth-free. 

"It [meth] does numb you for a bit and make you feel good, but it didn't heal me," she said.

That came when she realised she was living for her children and what life she wanted for them.