How NZ fell prey to the demon P

Quick hit: a model poses to demonstrate smoking methamphetamine with a lightbulb pipe.
Waikato Times
Quick hit: a model poses to demonstrate smoking methamphetamine with a lightbulb pipe.

In just five years, the drug P has made big inroads into New Zealand society. John McCrone investigates the power of methamphetamine.

People are talking about P, the drug epidemic that is going to steal our children, fry our brains, hollow out Kiwi society from the inside.

The use of P, or methamphetamine, took off like a rocket in 2002. By 2005, it had crossed all sections of society -- the party scene, the smart suburbs, the poor suburbs. Now it has become a fixture of the New Zealand landscape. Public enemy No. 1.

Experts say it is not just another drug scare. Amphetamines or "uppers" have been around forever of course. But as pills to be popped or powder to be snorted. P is different because people are smoking methamphetamine in its crystalline form -- ice, crank or crystal. It looks like rock salt. Clear if pure, pink or yellow-tinged if contaminated in the cooking process. Drop a few crystals in a glass pipe or carefully broken light-bulb, melt gently with a lighter and inhale the fumes.

Smoking seems no big deal. Needles are for losers. But smoking is sociable, a group activity. Something you might try as a spur of the moment decision. Yet you might as well have used a needle, mainlined, as crystal meth goes directly to the brain.

Ordinary amphetamines give a buzz. But smoking creates a rush. An immediate jolt to the brain. And unlike cocaine -- a natural plant extract which washes out of the brain after an hour or two -- P lingers for a day or more. Not surprisingly there is then the addictive grip to match.

It is brutal, a demon of a drug, say campaigners like Mike Sabin, of Methcon, a former drug-squad detective who dropped out of the force to become a P educator, taking his roadshow to the nation's schools and workplaces.

Sabin says stimulation can be measured by the levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, created in the brain. Normal levels would be 100. Sex is 200. Cocaine is 400. Meth is 1200. No wonder brain circuits blow out.

People abuse it because it is a stimulant. Too much heroin or alcohol and people pass out. With P they can go on "runs" for days at a time, chasing the high and doing ever greater damage to themselves.

So in every way P seems different. Yet New Zealand's drug-counselling and substance-abuse community says if we really want to understand this P epidemic, we have to take another step back. The story is much more complex.

Tim Harding, chief executive of Care New Zealand, says it is easy to demonise a substance. It is as if a drug is a magic potion. One sip and you are under its spell. All the focus goes on a single threat.

Yet the truth is that individual responses to a drug, even one as potent as methamphetamine, are surprisingly varied. Some people try it and get little effect, so wonder what the fuss is about. Or others, as with many drugs, do not even enjoy the effects. Instead of making them feel "10-foot high and bullet-proof", P simply leaves them restless and anxious.

Harding says for any strong drug, the reasons why people get hooked are usually as much to do with their own personalities and life circumstances as the power of the chemical. This would be the story with cannabis, for example. Surveys show the majority of New Zealand teenagers will try it, yet only 10 per cent become regular users.

No drug is so powerful that addiction is automatic.

The drug has to click physiologically and also be filling some psychological need.

"It's a myth that use it once and you'll be addicted," says Rebecca McKetin, a methamphetamine researcher at Australia's National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Sydney.

McKetin says addiction to heroin and other opiates is simpler. Users keep taking the drug because of the physical effects of withdrawal -- the cramps, the sweats. Anyone who uses the drug for a period will develop a physical dependence.

But with a stimulant like P, there are not the same withdrawal symptoms. Rather there is a psychological craving because the aftermath of using leaves people feeling desperately low.

McKetin says addiction is also usually an insidious process. Some can develop an out-of-control habit in a matter of months. But generally it takes two to five years for occasional users to become badly addicted users.

Chris Wilkins, a Massey University researcher who surveys levels of New Zealand drug use, says drug epidemics also tend to be self-limiting once people begin to see the damage being caused within their own social networks. And P use seems to have now moved into this phase.

Reports are that methamphetamine trafficking has plateaued over the past year or so -- although plateaued at a worryingly high level. New Zealand, along with Australia, is still a world leader in P consumption.

Nevertheless, says Wilkins, as people realise how unsafe smoking P is from what they have seen with their own eyes, passing around a meth pipe can quickly become as uncool as using needles.

McKetin says the timing is about right. If P smoking took off in 2002, then there would be now enough sad wrecks about to act as a warning to others.

Harding says it is not exactly good news that, as with all drugs, only a proportion of the population are ever likely to be caught in P's grip. But perspective is important. And he is much more worried about the general picture than the threat of the latest superdrug.

Harding says the blunt truth is that there is now a binge culture taking hold in countries like New Zealand. "Teenagers rate their parties by how f...... up people got."

There is a recklessness about all forms of drug taking. And the real problem now is poly-addiction -- lives where methamphetamine is only one of a number of strands to the addiction.

Harding says if you draw back to the actual statistics, alcohol and tobacco are still by far the bigger health and social threats. Talk about fried brains, try dealing with a long-term alcoholic, he says. Yet society has allowed the lowering of the drinking age, the sale of sugary alcopops, the advertising of booze.

And if we want to get alarmed by "superdrugs", then it is probably the combination of drink and cannabis, a routine lifestyle choice for many, which is creating the most damage.

Harding says the debate too often gets caught up in the harm caused by individual drugs, whether it be methamphetamine, nicotine or party pills, when what we need is general education on the problems of binging.

He says there is also the need for urgent reform of the justice system so drug-abusers are channelled into treatment rather than prison. Crimes are often the symptom. It is the addictions that need tackling.

A review of the Misuse of Drugs Act has just got under way, presenting a golden opportunity for change.

Sabin agrees the current justice and treatment system is a mess. The emphasis is on deterrence rather than cure. Treatment services are a patchwork of charity, private, Church and state schemes anyway. There is not a coherent national service to match the scale of our substance-abuse problems.

Yet still Sabin wants to warn of the particular perils of P.

He says many middle-class parents do not understand what is going on out there. They may find their teenagers are moody and spotty. They may suspect party-pills, alcopops and a little wacky-baccy. But methamphetamine has become as freely available as cannabis. If you can source one, you can source the other.

And it is not just addictive, it is an expensive habit. Getting high on cannabis might cost $20. A starter P habit would cost $200. For users with a tolerance, habits can quickly reach $1000 a day. So strange things start happening.

"Dealers target kids with rich parents," says Sabin. "The classic situation is a kid says `Mum, I'm just going to take the car down to the dairy to buy a litre of milk.'

"Then it's `Mum, while I was in the dairy, someone stole the car.' The car's been passed to the dealer for a couple of grams of meth. It'll be chopped by the end of the day and the parents will be making an insurance claim."

Or, says Sabin, the arrangement might be to leave a window open so the house can be burgled at a convenient moment.

Sabin says parents fall victim, too. His last arrest as a detective was an accountant in his mid-40s with a wife and young children. The accountant dabbled and thought he had the drug under control. Like a lot of white-collar amphetamine-users, the occasional boost to his energy levels seemed a good thing in a business world with pressures and deadlines.

"But there is no such thing as a safe dose. A recreational user of meth is an oxymoron. Eventually the wheels always fall off," says Sabin.

Cash was drained from the business and family accounts. To pay his drug debts, the accountant then had to run a money-laundering service for the gang. Finally, he became a drug cook and dealer himself, exploiting his friends and fellow professionals.

Sabin says another feature of P is how it becomes like a pyramid-selling network. Users become dealers to fund their own habits.

That is why it is a "hollowing out" drug. People heavily into dope or opiates visibly switch off, drop out. But addiction to a stimulant, ironically, keeps people functional enough to commit crime. With P, users may go for some time keeping up appearances while the drug burns away their lives from the inside.

Sabin lays on the bad news with a trowel when he visits schools. Short-term there is the aching depression and violent mood swings following a weekend bout. It is simple neurochemistry, he says. If your brain has been cranked up to 12 times its normal levels, you have to pay for all the pleasure when it lurches back the other way.

Then there is the long-term damage to lungs, heart, body and brain. Sabin brings out "before" and "after" slides of a pretty young woman who, through a series of police mug-shots, morphs into a rotting-toothed, scab-faced, yellow-skinned, hag.

P is even an environmental disaster, says Sabin. Those white body suits and kerb-side scrub downs when police investigate a clandestine meth lab are not just for show. The chemicals used in P manufacture are toxic and cancer-causing.

P is synthesised from the pseudoephedrine found in over-the-counter cold and hayfever remedies like Sudafed or Claritin-D.

All it takes is an internet recipe, a steady hand, and a range of household chemicals like acetone (nail-polish remover), iodine, anhydrous ammonia (fertiliser), hydrochloric acid (pool chemicals), lithium (batteries), red phosphorus (match heads), sodium hydroxide (lye), sulfuric acid (drain cleaner) and toluene (brake fluid).

But Sabin says for every kilo of drug, the cooking produces seven kilos of poisonous waste -- most of which will get tipped down the nearest drain.

"Once a house has been used as a P lab, it gets embedded in the gib and even penetrates into the stud timber."

Sabin says the characteristic smell of solvents and sweaty socks may be cleaned away and painted over. But he would not want to be the unwitting buyer of an ex-P house.

He says you have to ask the next time you hear of a senseless high-speed car chase, where kids fled police for no real reason, or of some random act of street violence, what role P might have played? The paranoia, the violent outbursts, the feelings of invincibility.

The same if you read about a lawyer siphoning off client funds or young fit people suddenly dying of mysterious heart attacks.

P is now destroying some lives and touching many more. Perhaps the epidemic is self-limiting and so levelling out. Yet we have still washed up with a large hardcore with established habits. We will be dealing with the social and physical aftermath of the P wave for many years to come.


The Press