Northland meth rehab program transforming lives

By The Detail for RNZ

A unique meth harm reduction programme in Northland is transforming lives, so why hasn’t it been rolled out across the country? The Detail speaks to the co-author of a recent evaluation report Darren Walton and Massey University's Chris Wilkins about what makes Te Ara Oranga so different.

Te Ara Oranga started in 2017 – it's a cross-agency initiative with police, health providers and other community organisations. 

A recent evaluation report has found that there's been a 34 percent reduction in harm from offending among the people the programme’s helped. 

And for every $1 invested in Te Ara Oranga, there's been a return of between $3 and $7. 

How do people get help from Te Ara Oranga? 

Police and health providers actively seek out people who might need support for methamphetamine use. 

This means that officers don't necessarily wait for someone to have committed a crime to refer them, like many overseas models. 

"For police, it is quite a radical change," says Darren Walton. 

The idea is that agencies work together in a preventative way. 

Northland's meth problem 

In New Zealand 55,000 people - about 1.1 percent of the population - consume 10kgs of meth a week. 

For Northland it's double that at about 2.2 percent, meaning one in 40 people are using meth. For Māori, it's even higher. 

"In some surveys, it's at least up to 3.3 percent, about one in 30 people," says Walton. 

"When we talk to the people of Northland and the service providers and the service users, it is just about impossible to find someone who is not affected - indirectly - by the harm of methamphetamine use," he says. 

"It's just so prevalent that everyone knows someone who is suffering from the consequence of methamphetamine use." 

How were the outcomes from the programme calculated? 

The 34 percent reduction in harm from offending comes from looking at anonymised data from police and health. 

Walton then compared the points of contact with police of those who had gone through Te Ara Oranga and those who had a more traditional experience. 

The return of between three and seven dollars was measured against the Ministry's of Health Drug Harm Index, which suggests harm from meth use costs the country about $820 million every year. 

"In some ways we tried to be exceptionally conservative," says Walton. 

The return figures were only based on someone staying off meth for between two and four years, but Walton says if someone does stay off the drug for the rest of their lives, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars saved in social and individual harm. 

Rolling it out across the country 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised to expand Te Ara Oranga to 4000 more people in the Bay of Plenty and East Coast during the 2020 election campaign.  

Last year, Health Minister Andrew Little made a commitment to roll it out nationwide, but no timeline was given and so far nothing has happened.

Last week in an opinion piece for the New Zealand Herald, former Prime Minister Helen Clark questioned the inaction by government to expand Te Ara Oranga.

Chris Wilkins says he's surprised by the lack of progress. 

"They have had a lot on their plate, in terms of Covid," he says. "But the ball is in Labour's court to do something,” he says. 

"There has been a lot of this health focus of drug policy, it's certainly something they've been pushing so I would have thought this fitted in quite nicely." 

Little told The Detail the government is committed to the roll out of Te Ara Oranga by the end of this parliamentary term.