CRYSTAL METH - The methamphetamine problem


It may be hard to believe, but New Zealand now has one of the worst narcotics epidemics in the Western world, according to a United Nations survey out this month. CLARE SWINNEY goes underground, talking to drug manufacturers, suppliers and users for a unique perspective on the methamphetamine explosion

 Picture this: a ga-rage in suburban Auckland, its windows ob-scured by a clutter of accumulated junk. To the out-side observer it’s just another shed. But inside it’s a whole different ballgame. A hooded figure toils over glass beakers, test tubes and paraphernalia more suited to the evil scientist in a Hammer Horror classic. Fumes twist and twirl upwards from a pot of nondescript something, and on the table the feeble lamplight illuminates the cover of a recipe book: Uncle Fester’s Secrets. Believe it or not, this is not the Adams Family. It’s one of hundreds of backyard methamphetamine labs springing up around New Zealand.

The spotlight shone on methamphetamine use when golden boy Darren McDonald, TV3’s former newsman, who had had name suppression until August 8th, pleaded guilty to conspiring to supply P, then spoke publicly about how exciting it was being under its influence while he was reading the news. 

Since this exposé and the report of the United Nations survey which found that New Zealand and Australia were second only to Thailand for methamphetamine use in 2001 - with 3.4% of our populations using the drug - the media has been swamped with stories about people being violent, stealing and even killing, while apparently under its power. 

But how serious is this problem really?

John Cassell (not his real name) has been a user for six years. He mixes with gang members socially and knows a number of P-manufacturers and suppliers. P, he assures, is endemic.  It is everywhere.  The woman at the corner dairy, the man at the service station, your barrister or your dentist could be using it. Anyone.

Cassell, who is employed and lives with his partner in the North Island, offered to speak to Investigate about P, despite the risk in doing so, as he feels vehemently that people should be warned against using it.

There are a couple of forms of P: rock or powder. The rock form is known as pure or ice, and is considered to be the highest quality.  It comes in little rocks that look like broken glass shards. It will cost you between $600 and $1000 a gram, $18 to $19,000 for an ounce and $260,000 for a pound.

The powder form, which is usually between $100 to $150 a gram, may be contaminated with sugar, salt, glucose or even Ajax; anything that looks like P long enough to get you to hand your money over.

“If anyone puts additives in it, they’d shoot themselves in the foot, as there’s so much good stuff in New Zealand now, you’d just go to another seller. Though, you can’t tell how good it is until you’ve had it,” asserts Cassell, who adds that there is very little powder being sold at the moment, given the flood of high quality “ice” into the NZ market from Asia.

P is so popular amongst all sectors of society now primarily because of the quality of the high it produces for the price – which is why it is known as workingman’s cocaine.  One user crowed: “I’ve had some of the best sex, the most fascinating conversations, and the wildest, most intense adventures of my life while I was high on methamphetamine, or owing in one way or another to my involvement with meth and related stimulants; I don’t have any regrets.” 

Another big bonus from using P, says Cassell, is that the high is longer lasting compared to that from related drugs.

“The first time I took it, it made my scalp tingle. It gives you a feeling of wellbeing and confidence.  The good feeling goes up and down.  Some people have it for 3 or 4 days, non-stop. They’ll keep taking it over that period and have a binge.  They don’t sleep, which is where a lot of the violence comes from. A lot of paranoia comes off it.”

Great sex gifted by drugs, euphoria, and self-confidence is driving some users to repeat the pleasure-producing behaviour and douse their brains with meth over, and over and over again, every day, but a tricky thing is happening to them.  With continued use, the reward threshold increases – so while it’s often hugely pleasurable in the beginning, the sensitivity to it quickly wears off and it fails to produce the same intensity of feelings it initially did. 

Bigger and bigger doses are needed, leading some hapless users to a self-destructive habit – a phenomenon called ‘chasing the ghost,’ as they try to attain those first highs over and over again. 

A burnt-out woman writes to drug users: “You are all walking on thin ice. I finally fell through. I have done just about every drug, at least once. (Not heroin - it’s tooooo scary). Oh yeah, no needles either. I walked around having a grand experience. A fun heightened awareness on shrooms [mushrooms] to the tweaked-out Mum going to bed just after getting her kid off to school. I thought that I didn’t have an addictive personality. I have been able to put down anything and walk away.

“If you play Russian Roulette over and over, well, eventually you’ll shoot yourself. I picked up the foil. I liked the meth. It started as a weekend thing. Then a “I need to get this or that done”.  Hey my yard looks great! The truth became sadly apparent a year and a half later, when my husband and I had gone through at least 3 cartons of 75ft heavy duty foil, that we are off the chain with this stuff.  So today I sit here, my second day of giving it up. Hoping that we both have the willpower to stay away from the cook. I’m sitting here falling asleep while I type this, so please excuse the typos. We’ve been trading shifts with our 2-year old. He’s napping now...I think I’ll join him…

“Just know this.... There IS a drug out there that you will like too much. You will not know which one it is until you’ve tried it. By then, it may be too late. I’m too tired to care if you disagree or not.”

Methamphetamine, a potentially persuasive menace, may be swallowed, smoked, snorted, or injected.  Some take advantage of the drug’s rapid vaporization by spreading it in powdered form on aluminum foil, heating it, then inhaling the fumes, as this woman did.

“Four or five-years ago,” Cassell points out, “before the pure stuff came out - when P was an underground thing, it was for gang members and lawyers: the elite. The middle-class didn’t use it. But it’s since swept through middle-class New Zealand, as if it was designed for them.  They didn’t know anything about it until the good stuff came out and was dumped on them.  It was a business move – dumping it on the middle-class.  Gangs realized here was an untapped market with good incomes, and bank accounts they could drain, and it went from hard to get hold of, to, in 6 months, sweeping through all classes and as easy to get hold of as marijuana about 2 years ago.” 

P or meth is in rock or powder form depending on how it’s made, according to a cook, (manufacturer), who states: “When I was buying it, I got powder, but when I was making it, I would get little rocks, or big rocks depending on how fast I boiled it down. Also, you can take some powder or small rocks and heat it up in a bubble pipe or test tube or whatever and then let it solidify into a large rock. Also, people sometimes clean their meth with non-polar solvents and then let it evaporate and it solidifies into a rock.”

Labs of the underworld are often crude and run by scientific simpletons in places such as basements, old buildings, motel rooms, camping trailers and even moving vehicles.

An essential guide for the more sophisticated cooks, named ‘Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture (3rd ed.) by Uncle Fester, is readily available on the Internet and even through bookshops like Amazon. In fact, an illustration of just how prevalent drug manufacturing has become in New Zealand can be seen in the fact that Uncle Fester’s Secrets made the top 20 list of books supplied by Amazon to New Zealand bookbuyers last year. Another “cookbook” went as high as number nine.


In Cassell’s experience though, those able to produce good qual-ity batches of methamphet-amine are selling their own reci-pes to wanna-be cooks. “Any- one can be a manufacturer if they’re shown how. The ones I know about aren’t using Uncle Fester’s guide. They’re getting a set recipe that’s been shown to work. They’re not people with chemistry degrees.  They’re ex-gang members.”

Methamphetamine cooks chemically extract ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from cold medicines sold over the counter or acquired from people such as pharmacists or drug warehouse staff who trade on the black-market, and will use heat and a variety of chemical reactions to produce the finished product: methamphetamine hydrochloride. 

Most items used in these labs are found in your average kitchen: coffee filters, hot plates, electric skillets, Pyrex dishes, plastic tubes, funnels, rubber gloves, breathing masks and glass jars.  And many of the ingredients used in ephedrine reduction can be bought legally.       

Household products used to produce P include: salt, drain cleaner, camping fuel and paint thinner.  The more difficult to acquire ingredients include lithium strips, usually from batteries, and anhydrous ammonia.  In one recipe, red phosphorous, usually extracted from matchstick heads, and iodine, are used rather than lithium and anhydrous ammonia.  While most of these precursors are destroyed or consumed in the manufacturing process, residues are readily apparent in some batches of finished P.

While some may argue that P addiction is only experienced by the weak-willed and of bad character, in reality it is an adversity for people from all walks of life.  Anyone can join the ranks of P addicts. It is a leveling influence - a great respecter of nobody.

Withdrawal symptoms after heavy or prolonged use are atrocious.  Depression, fatigue, vivid unpleasant dreams and insomnia cause users to crave more.  And a common feature of prolonged high-dose use or binges is that psychosis develops.  Psychosis refers to experiencing delusions and being out of touch with reality. 

Indeed, persecutory delusions sometimes develop rapidly, shortly after use of P, causing users to feel paranoid - perhaps convinced people are talking about them or following them.  Also, bizarre distortions of body image and misperception of the face may occur, as can the frightening, almost demonic, delusions that bugs or vermin are crawling in or under your skin. This can lead sufferers to scratch incessantly, causing serious damage to the skin. 

Users may also hear voices. 

“I know a couple in their 40’s, on an average income,” says Cassell. “They were the kind of people I used to like to go round to visit to talk to.  The woman, a supplier, who’s been on P for two years, taking it every day, has gone mental.  She has psychotic episodes.  She walks around the house having conversations with people who aren’t there.  She attacks her husband. Tries to scratch his eyes out and all sorts. They’re still taking it, even though it’s destroyed them.”

And P he says, is affecting both his own, and many of his friends’ intellectual functioning “terribly.”  He said: “You can make a time to see someone and forget all about it.  And users forget what they’d said to someone the day before.  People on it are talking and functioning on a superficial level, but they’re not really there.  It’s very damaging to relationships. And because you can get so tired after a binge, you can put yourself and others in danger. I know someone who recently was so tired while driving, he fell asleep at the wheel and was crossing the median line with a logging truck heading towards him when he opened his eyes.”   

Cassell continues: “A lot of drugs on the black-market before P became prevalent weren’t as potent, and people didn’t know what had hit them when they started using it.  I’ve seen a lot of people use it and it’s stuffed them. A lot of people, whom I thought wouldn’t, have fallen over on it. 

Cassell also asserts the police and drug educators may be falling victim to “boy who cried wolf” syndrome in their attempt to counter the P epidemic.

“When the authorities started going on about how bad marijuana was, they exaggerated.  People didn’t experience it as bad.  It seemed harmless and its effects mild.  So now people think Government is full of shit, which is dangerous because if Government warns people how bad P is, many will think to themselves, ‘They told us that about marijuana, so I won’t believe them.’   And all these kids are saying the effects of marijuana must be like the effects of P and by the time they’re hooked they realize it’s nothing like it at all,” suggests a weary Cassell. 

Those people committing burglary and involved in car conversion to pay for meth are at the bottom-end of the supply level.  They are paying a street price.  A supplier might first charge you $1000.  If you go back, he may drop the price to $600 to encourage your loyalty to him or her.  “Sellers are predatory, motivated by selfishness and greed, with no thought about the damage the drugs they’re selling are causing. Because government has made speed sale a crime, the only type of person selling it, is like this, as no one else will do the job.” 

The 30th May 2003 marked the initiation of the Coalition Government’s Methamphetamine Action Plan.  From that date, importers, manufacturers and suppliers of methamphetamine risked life imprisonment, as the drug changed from Class B2 to Class A under the Misuse of Drugs Act.  The change gave police stronger powers too.  They may search and seize without a warrant when they have a reasonable suspicion the drug is present. 

Does Cassell think changing P to Class A will impact on supplies?  “Not at all. And I think the Justice System is targeting the wrong end.  Authorities need to invest more in targeting the suppliers, instead of the users.” 

Dr Chris Wilkins, of the SHORE Center in Auckland, has conducted research into the impact of methamphetamine in New Zealand.  He notes that it is individuals that do most of the criminal activity, as it is not conducive to large hierarchical organizations, which are vulnerable to law enforcement. However, some types of illegal activity require greater organization and therefore assist in the development of gangs.  Wilkins is currently investigating whether P’s domestic production is playing a similar role here to that played by alcohol in the United States during prohibition in the 1920’s, in assisting our gangs to develop.

While gangs are undoubtedly profiting hugely, according to Cassell, who commonly mixes with members, P’s weakened some to such an extent it could be construed as working for the police.  “Many gang members are getting destroyed by P use.  Some gangs are losing members left, right and center.  It’s having a drastic effect.  Some members are becoming that dysfunctional they’re no good to the organization any more. But you don’t hear about it in the media.” 

On the topic of the media, it was highlighted in the cover story, named Gangland Rising (Metro, June 2002), that gangs had set aside old rivalries to expand their drug business.  Cassell, familiar with the article, claims matter-of-factly that gangs are still fighting with one another, and that conflicts of interest are drug-related, remarking that that’s all they’ve got left to fight about.

Business is primarily Auckland-based and a substantial portion of the drug is being imported, readymade from Asia.  Making mammoth-dollars out of sales are all of the principal gangs: Headhunters, Black Power, Mongrel Mob, Hell’s Angels, King Cobras, Tribesmen, Highway 61.

While some suggest that P is only a problem because the government makes it one by branding its use illegal, it seems apparent there’d be a problem in spite of this.  Look at alcohol. If P got to the level of availability alcohol has, and people were drinking and taking P, it may well be a recipe for disaster for numerous families, for one can consume more alcohol while on P, it makes one feel bullet-proof and predisposed to flying-off-the-handle says Cassell.

The day the United Nations survey about meth use was widely publicized, talk-back shows devoted hours of air time to the drug.  New Zealand grappled to come to terms with how big this problem was.  A few people, who’d taken it, went on air.  One man contacted Newstalk ZB and voiced an agitated-sounding message that’s been heard time and time again: “Government needs to crack down on the gangs who are selling it.  They are making huge money out of ruining peoples lives. Families need to be helped.  Once they’re hooked - that’s it…When you come off it, you go mental. You abuse anyone and everyone near you, as you don’t know what you’re doing. I couldn’t believe the shit that came out of my mouth. It takes you over. It’s a horrible, horrible drug...” 

And naturally its abuse is impacting on the lives of a growing number of innocent children.  Indeed, increasing numbers of grandparents are taking custody of those whose parents are addicts in order to protect them.  Tragically youngsters have been traumatized as a result of the drug’s effects on their parents, according to Diane Vivian, national co-ordinator for the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust.  Vivian said children being exposed to behaviour related to P-abuse may feel abandoned by their parents and suffer serious mental disorders as a result, including post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders, and are more likely to become drug abusers themselves.

In addition, while there is no hard evidence that P is behind an increase in crime figures, other than a number of well-publicized anecdotal cases, the National Collective of Women’s Refuges has linked P to an increase in domestic violence.  According to Suman Rattan, co-ordinator of Tryphina House Women’s Refuge and Nadene Devonshire, a caseworker for Te Puna O Te Aroha Maori Women’s Refuge, both of Northland, P is being reported by clients as acting as a trigger for domestic violence.

Rattan says: “What sort of society are we bringing up? You are not talking about 10c to buy this stuff. This is another factor added to what are so many dysfunctional families in New Zealand already. Naturally, it’s affecting children, who are either witnessing abuse or being abused themselves.  P is helping take New Zealand on a downward spiral to make a few pockets richer.  It’s not something that will destroy society, but it’s not positive.  We need a community effort to try and eradicate it.”

It seems too late to eradicate it. You need only ask a friend if they know someone who is selling it, or a friend of a friend.  In the bowels of many pubs there will be someone there, peddling it.  It has infiltrated society now, the way marijuana did. 

Most people on P aren’t able to realize the damage it’s doing to them – everything seems great.  When they are coming down, and they feel sorry for themselves, they realize then. 

Cassell concludes: “People should avoid it. They mustn’t trade in their dreams to line the pockets of a dealer who doesn’t give a damn about them. They’ll never repair the damage it does or recover what they’ve lost.”

Anything that high-profile figures can do to warn people off this drug must be welcomed.  Darren McDonald’s smiling face and helpful comments after his court case can best serve to remind us that anyone is susceptible to falling under methamphetamine’s highly addictive, beguiling spell.




AFTER USING METH (same, 3 yrs later)




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