P easier to get than weed on the West Coast
The annual cannabis haul in the West Coast bush has been trending down over the past decade but P offences have sky-rocketed. Joanne Carroll takes a look at what is happening.
The West Coast has always had a reputation for being the cannabis capital of New Zealand with its isolated communities surrounded by beautiful wild bush in a climate that some say creates ideal growing conditions.
But that reputation is changing as P takes a devastating grip.
Locals say P is now the scourge of the beautiful region; too easy to find, too hard to escape, and increasingly to blame for extreme violence, ruined lives and broken families.
Police figures show their concern is real. P-related crime leapt a staggering 252 per cent in the Tasman district – from 60 offences to 211 – in the second half of last year.
Police and locals say P is a growing scourge on West Coast communities and are worried that people are not seeking help to beat their P addiction.
DESPERATE USERS 'LOSE THEIR MORAL COMPASS'
A 22-year-old man recently showed up at the Westport courthouse begging to be put in prison so he could get off P. He was put in prison for breaching his release conditions, but later let go and had to wait five days to be assessed for a residential rehab facility.
Westport lawyer Doug Taffs said Andy Halliday wanted to be put in custody for his and the community's safety because he had an "extreme" methamphetamine problem.
"Mr Halliday wanted to get clean cold turkey and he couldn't do it on the street," Taffs said.
Taffs, a defence lawyer for almost 40 years, believed P was widely available on the Coast.
"People who use it don't have any trouble getting it.
"What I'm seeing is young people, especially young men, generally socially disadvantaged chaps out of work. They are becoming an increasing danger to themselves and others. They are totally unpredictable. Their public demeanour is one of eruptive violence," he said.
While the police were doing their best, Taffs believed it was "out of control".
"P users quickly become completely amoral such is their need to get it they will lie and cheat and steal. They lose their moral compass.
"I've seen the damage done by long term cannabis use but P does it in a real raging hurry," he said.
'I WAS IN THE HANDS OF VERY DANGEROUS PEOPLE'
Emma* is thankful she was arrested for dealing methamphetamine because it was the catalyst she needed to kick an extreme drug addiction.
"I was arrested last year for possession, dealing, offering to supply. It was an eye opener. I'm glad I got arrested because it made me realise I'd ruined my life. I'd ruined my name. I woke up and realised life was better than that. I said enough is enough," she said.
Emma, now in her mid-20s, was brought up in Westport on the West Coast but got into drugs when she moved to Nelson at 17.
"It was so simple. Just meeting a friend of a friend when I was working in a pub. They just said hey do you want some of this and I tried it. That was how it got started for me. Then it got extreme," she said.
She got mixed up with gangs, dealers and worked as an escort to pay for drugs after losing her job.
"I was in the hands of some very dangerous people. I was living in my car. I lost a lot of weight. I was really sick looking. It's a life killer," she said.
She moved back to Westport three years ago, but found P readily available in her hometown.
"It's very easy to get. It's really bad here. It's ruining families. The group of people on it is so large.
"People you wouldn't think would be on it. It's a scary thing to know that in a block there could be three houses where people are selling, making it or smoking it. It's that common in Westport," she said.
"There's nothing in Westport to help people get out of it. There needs to be more support services, support groups. There's nowhere for people to go.
"There should be emergency housing for people who need it, similar to Women's Refuge but for anyone in any situation like getting kicked out of home, or being chased for a debt," she said.
Emma narrowly avoided a jail term and was given community work and drug and alcohol counselling.
Time in counselling helped her realise she was taking drugs to escape from unresolved issues in her life.
However, she says while the counselling helped, she was the only one responsible for her recovery.
"I have a strong mind. I have determination and a lot of people don't have that. It was really hard. I would dream about it. Think about it.
"I thought that I could smell it. I had to eliminate people.
"I was a loner for a long time. It took a long time to get a job. I kept getting denied, denied, denied but my boss gave me a second chance. In a small town that's hard to find," she said.
FORCED TO LEAVE WESTPORT TO ESCAPE DRUGS
Hannah*, 29, had to leave Westport to escape from meth.
"I refuse to go back to Westport. I know at least five people I could go to their house and they'd be smoking it now. It's easier to find P than weed. It's readily available," she said.
"I would honestly guess between 25 and 50 per cent of people over there are on it. To me it's huge. I think it's such a big issue and they don't know how to deal with it."
She began taking P with her partner and soon the couple were dealing it to pay for an intense addiction.
"I trusted him and I just thought I could try a little bit but a little bit turned into a lot. Three months later I was living a lie. I wasn't eating. I lost a heck of a lot of weight. You'll do anything to get more. It's horrible scary place to be," she said.
Her turning point came when her two children were witness to a huge bust up between her and her partner.
"Both of us were violent when we were off it wanting to get more. Most of my friends were smoking it as well. So I picked up my kids and I left Westport," she said.
She moved to another South Island town where family lived and booked herself in to rehab.
"There was so much willpower involved. I was always still craving it. I went to rehab detox for a week and then a live-in for eight weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I learned so much about myself," she said.
She said the key was she was willing to change.
"Most people in there I kept in contact with went straight back on it. It has a huge hold over these people."
She believed the way to deal with the problem was to cut supply and harsher penalties.
"Nothing will change unless the stuff is gone. In Westport I know a guy who got done for it. He didn't get put in prison and he's still doing it. He should be having random drug tests. He should be checked."
She said people were not asking the health service for help.
"They are stuck in such a bad head space. They either find more or to something stupid. I know people who have died because of that drug in Westport. One overdosed and the other drowned because of it."
MORE SUPPORT NEEDED FOR EX-ADDICTS
Hannah found help in a support group set up by Westport woman Gail Cossar, who struggled with alcohol addiction most of her adult life.
Cossar,who has been in recovery for three years, set up the group, with initial support from the DHB and other NGO services, because she wanted to help other people come back into the community after rehab.
"It's very difficult to come back into the community after rehab. In rehab you have meetings every day but when I came back to Westport I really missed that. There is AA and NA meetings and I had a support worker at the hospital but I needed something else. So I put myself out there and set up a support group," she said.
The Stepping Up In Life Alcohol and Drug Peer Support Group started in May 2014 and since then has helped 50 people on their way to recovery from alcohol and drug addictions.
The group has bagged two awards at the Trustpower Community Awards.
Cossar believes meth is a serious problem in the town.
"People get into it because it is available. It's there. It's expensive so people sell it to fund it. Who can afford $150 a hit? There are more burglaries, people stealing," she said.
Addicts needed peer support workers who understood exactly they were going through.
"Once the person has made up their own minds to change they should be seen immediately. Any detox is a life threatening situation. At present I understand that people have to wait several weeks to be seen at a DHB Alcohol and Drug Clinic and several months for a placement at a Rehab Centre."
She says Westport should have a detox facility and a rehab centre should be available on the West Coast.
West Coast District Health Board mental health service clinical director Cameron Lacey said there was no waiting list and most people were seen within two weeks.
"While services may not be directly comparable to larger cities, West Coast services and West Coast people in general are extremely resourceful, and it is possible to put in place meaningful individualised support packages to enable people to maintain their health," he said.
West Coast DHB planning and funding manager Carolyn Gullery said although there had been a 10 per cent cut to the region's mental health funding, there was no intention to reduce services as it was population-based.
The service was not seeing an increase in referral rates for methamphetamine use.
About 4.5 per cent of all referrals received by the service were clearly identified as being methamphetamine-related.
About 50 per cent were alcohol-related, with cannabis use referrals as the next most commonly reported substance.
The DHB alcohol and drug service had seen a spike in 2015 which it put down to people who had moved mainly from Christchurch to Buller.
It had 27 referrals for P use in the year to December 22, 2015 compared to 13 referrals in the previous 12-month period. However, there was a drop again in 2016 with 17 referrals up to the end of October.
'THE SCARY PART IS PEOPLE GET HOOKED ON IT SO QUICKLY'
However, West Coast police's field intelligence officer senior constable Mike Tinneally said meth was becoming "more and more prevalent".
He believed a "very high percentage" of meth on the Coast was gang-related.
"It's easier to get than cannabis. I don't think we are any different to the rest of the country. We're seeing more intense violence. It's a nasty horrible drug. The scary part is people get hooked on it so quickly. It's so addictive and very hard to break."
The cost of keeping a P habit was fuelling more serious crime on the Coast.
"There was a guy here who had a $5000 a day habit. There's no way anybody is going to be able to afford that without committing serious crime."
The Tasman District recorded the highest drug supply offences per population in the country in the first five months of the 2015/16 financial year at almost four times the national average.
Drug use offending was also the highest nationally, with an increase of 6 per cent. The number of methamphetamine offences rose from 60 to 211, an increase of 252 per cent. Nationally, there had been a 12 per cent increase.
In response, police set up a tactical crime unit on the West Coast. Its first priority will be to hit P hard.
Sergeant Mathew Tailby, who leads the unit, said methamphetamine use was a clear issue for the region.
While his unit has been given a clear mandate to target meth use and distribution, he knows making arrests is not the only way out of the epidemic.
"In order to make lasting progress in reducing the P problem we need to reduce the demand for the drug and this can only be achieved through the rehabilitation of those already addicted and preventing new people becoming addicted.
While Ministry of Health figures show meth use is going down nationally there no figures available for individual regions.
Needle Exchange programme director Kathryn Leafe said there were 37,000 places for DHB funded treatment nationally, but the need was more like 150,000.
The Needle Exchange runs a mobile service for Coast drug users.
"Services generally on the Coast including social services are fairly stretched as it's a large area to cover and population-based models. This is a challenge. There aren't the same range of services you might find in cities so for example aftercare support once someone has left residential treatment."
"Anecdotally, we hear of increase in many of the regions including the Coast. The numbers accessing services isn't necessarily an indicator of use as people may not be accessing treatment," she said.
Emma can attest to the benefits of accessing treatment and kicking a P addiction.
Now drug-free she's never felt better.
"I'm more confident. I'm on cloud nine. I'm proud I've overcome all that. I live a different life. Instead of being broke and sick looking. I'm a stronger better person. I'm making my life better for the future. It's truly amazing, it brings me to tears how good it feels."
If you need help or know someone who does or may do, then please seek professional support from your general practitioner, mental health and addiction services or through the advice and helplines listed here:
· Alcohol and Drug Helpline - 0800 787 797
· Healthline – 0800 611 116
· Lifeline – 0800 543 354