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Christchurch rebuild workers fuel meth problem

Samantha Olley

"You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. Our tradies are using the white rock."

While methamphetamine use by trades and construction workers is just one part of the city's demand for the drug, New Zealand's leading illicit drugs experts and services have revealed to Metro News that it is an alarmingly large part.

Annabelle Harris leads Odyssey House's national meth help team from Christchurch, she told Metro News about what she's been witnessing in her role.

"So we’ve got single young men with lots of extra cash. And for a while there when drug testing wasn’t so prevalent, a lot of people in the building industry painters and everything, there was always going to be a couple of people using or maybe, I’ve even heard stories of companies where the boss is using and that’s how the rest of the team got introduced to it and maybe the whole crew."

"Straight after the earthquakes, no increase in Christchurch... But as I would have expected... We’re in about the 6th year now and it’s definitely increasing...So we’re just seeing that now, say this last year, the last 6 months, it has really increased in Christchurch and that’s about what I’d kind of expect and I would say that it’s going to keep increasing, in the next year or two, if we look at the previous statistics…"

And the statistics only reinforce Harris' findings at Odyssey.

Ross Bell, Executive Director of the New Zealand Drugs Foundation, told Metro News their research also supports what Christchurch's support services are witnessing:

"The research we’ve seen does suggest that Christchurch has kind of bucked the trend that generally across the board methamphetamine use has been decreasing significantly...I think it makes sense to me that a good explanation for that would be the rebuild. No other part of NZ has got the same kind of changing demographic where you’ve got new workers going into the city to help with the rebuild and then a lot of cash being moved around, the money into the Christchurch rebuild and the workers getting paid."

Former Black Power member turned social worker and consultant, Denis O'Reily, says it was almost an inevitable eventuality.

"So you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, where you’ve got young people, especially young men, earning reasonably high wages, and you’ve got people who’ve come in from other countries which are used to taking psychoactive substances in one form or another besides alcohol, you’re going to get demand. And two things have happened, sort of perfect storm. We’ve had this supply-driven spike in methamphetamine use, we saw just the other day, for instance, the half a billion dollars worth of meth washed up on Northland shores. You know I don’t think that would be the first delivery. And so yeah young men, money, wanna have a good time, ah the thing about meth is you can actually operate on it quite well. So unlike alcohol, you know you could still work fast and it’s quite a sort of a high utilitarian sort of drug in a way."

But as Dr Chris Wilkins explains, in his work as Massey University Senior Researcher and Leader of the Illegal Drug Research Team, it's been hard to get most authorities to acknowledge the problem.

"We have some pretty good trend data and what we’ve been finding is since around 2011 and 2012 there’s been an increase in methamphetamine use and availability in Christchurch, so a pretty steady increase.There’s been an influx of construction workers who tend to be young men who have higher levels of drug use than the rest of population... But when we have raised this potential cause of construction workers there’s been quite a lot of scepticism from some people but to us it certainly seems like a plausible explanation, given the timing and also who we are talking about."

Detective Inspector Virginia Le Bas - our National Manager of Organised Crime - says Police accept the use of the drug in this city has risen since the quakes.

In a pioneering move, they announced last year sewerage samples would be tested in the city, and in Auckland - two of New Zealand's meth hotspots - to help identify those who may be using or supplying this drug and others.

However, Le Bas didn't want to identify Christchurch's construction sector as having a particular problem in our interview.

"The impression that I get from the literature that I read is that is across the social sector of people, ranging from all sorts of professions... Methamphetamine is an illegal substance in this country, it’s always difficult to understand completely what the facts and figures really are because people are not going to necessarily tell you."

However, Le Bas said she understood why it be an appealing drug to employees in that industry.

"Look methamphetamine is a stimulant that allows you to work harder and longer for days...To keep people awake, to do bigger hours maybe."

However, Denis O'Reily says the police need to get brave and admit that this sector in this city has a particular problem.

"Police intelligence in some ways can be a bit of an oxymoron. Sometimes their attention is very subjective. I think there’s a much more deeper set of analysis going on at the moment. You’ve got your long term studies done by Dr Chris Wilkins but that takes maybe 3 years before the trend starts to become evident whereas those of us at the front end spot these shifts pretty quickly."

Annabelle Harris stresses that meth addicts "do get better with help".

But some of New Zealand's treatment services are under-resourced, causing wait list problems in some areas.

Currently, we have a nationwide total of 630 District Health Board funded beds for alcohol and drug treatment, but less than a sixth of these are useable for treatment of extreme alcohol and drug users such as those using meth.

How do we stop meth use in the rebuild?

One of the strongest attempts to reduce methamphetamine and other drugs on Christchurch sites is the Canterbury Rebuild Safety Charter, an agreement between over 300 organisations involved in construction here.

Ross Bell is not alone in his scepticism of drug testing methods.

Denis O'Reily and Annabelle Harris both expressed the same concerns to Metro News.

We spoke to two students who had worked on construction sites in Christchurch as summer labourers about their experiences with drug testing and their workmates.

Jack* described:

"One of the more experienced workers recounted to me a time when he and some friends used methamphetamine while being contracted to renovate a house. Use of the drug allowed them to work constantly for several days without any sleep, and gave them a huge boost in focus and motivation. The worker and his friends finished the work in about a third of the expected time, and spent the rest of that time at their leisure.

During the hiring process, the company employee would ask workers explicitly whether or not they would pass a drug test, and if they responded that they wouldn’t, the representative would tell them to go away for a week or so and return when they would pass."

Thomas* described similar things:

"There was this one particular day when the drug van came, this one guy was called up and he really really couldn’t piss. And I heard from some of the other boys that this had happened a few times before. And the site foreman was a bit sick of him so they told him that he wasn’t allowed to leave the van until he’d take a piss. So he spent four hours in the van that day and then eventually just stormed out of the van and left site. I’m not quite sure they fired him. He was a pretty damned good craftsmen and a pretty good welder, but yeah definitely indulging in a little bit of street crack.

So are definitely a few methods that some people were using to get around these piss tests. Particularly if they knew it was coming in advance you can go down to somewhere the likes of Cosmic Corner or perhaps Weirdos funk store, get yourself a detox cleansing kit. And I’ve heard mixed reports about them but some people swear by them.

That involves taking a bunch of capsules and some kind of liquid at a predetermined time before the piss test. Maybe consuming a whole bunch of water to flush out the system."

Under the law, drug testing shouldn't work like this.

Under the new Health and Safety at Work Act businesses "must eliminate, or if that’s not reasonably practicable, minimise health and safety risks as much as reasonably practicable".

Tania Jarvis of Alcohol and Drug Technology admits some businesses need to pick up their act.

"The amount of places I walk into and they’ve got an AOD policy on the wall and I say 'oh how long’s that been up there?' and they say '6 years'. 'And how effective is that?' And they say 'I don’t know, never done anything'.

We’ve had some people come to us and say, can you do some random testing, but can you please make sure Bill, Bob and Ben are on the list. That ain’t random. If you worried about Bill, Bob and Ben, reasonable cause test them."

But there are ways of getting it put right.

"Have a conversation. You obviously know that there is an issue. You highlighted it by telling us. So we look at how do we do that random selection. We recommend, use a third party. No bias, transparency of the process means nobody feels picked on."

* Names have been changed for anonymity.