The NZ Herald today launched a new, wide-scope documentary into the effect methamphetamine has on small town New Zealand. Alex Braae talks to one of the journalists involved, Jared Savage, about the process of getting it made, and how his views on the meth trade have changed over his decade reporting on it.
Perceptions of methamphetamine have come a long way since the drug first hit the market in the late 1990s.
From being a party drug for the wealthy, to the bewildered mockery of Deja Voodoo’s song about being “on P and I’m alright,” to the periodic moral panics and crackdowns, methamphetamine has long loomed large in the public consciousness.
Overblown media reporting on meth has often contributed to a sense of public panic –particularly with regards to meth testing in houses – which has at times undermined the credibility of fears about the drug. But since it has been in New Zealand, methamphetamine has genuinely taken hold on communities around the country. The drug is highly addictive, and increasingly, it is hitting poorer communities harder.
However, dominant views on how best to stop that social harm have also changed dramatically. New programmes have been launched to try and get users and addicts off the drug through health based methods, rather than through locking them up.
Throughout all of that, NZ Herald investigative journalist Jared Savage has been keeping an eye on it. He and colleagues Kirsty Johnston and Chris Reed have spent months going to those smaller, poorer communities to try and understand the root causes of why it has taken hold so much there. Jared Savage spoke to The Spinoff about what it has taught him.
What led you to being involved with this documentary?
For about a decade now I’ve been doing stories on meth from the organised crime point of view. The very first piece that really got me into it was a piece in 2009 about how Chinese organised crime groups were using SkyCity VIP rooms to operate drug rings. They were high rollers, and essentially laundering profits through the casino. I was quite interested in the cops and robbers side of it – you’re talking about large amounts of money and assets, and quite clever and sophisticated criminals and detectives. There were some great compelling stories to be told.
I was also involved in a big Herald series that year on the war on P. But as the years have gone by, the seizures just kept getting bigger and bigger. And you’d report on these things as isolated incidents, but new records would keep on being broken. So when this doco came up I thought I should be involved, because I understand how the criminal landscape has evolved, and I’ve got some good institutional knowledge, so I helped out dealing with the cops and Customs and other various officials and agencies. Things sort of grew from there really.
This documentary looks a lot more at the effect the trade has on people. And that’s not really the sort of situation where you can just walk into a meth house and start waving a tape recorder around. In terms of building up trust with people you wanted to talk to, what was that work like?
It’s like any journalism, in terms of building trust and rapport. A lot of the people we spoke to would say someone else would know something, and then they’d say someone else would be better to talk to, so it’s like pulling a thread until you find the right people. But what makes it harder – coming from the Herald, it’s easy to ring someone up and get a quote for a story, and it can be a headline tomorrow. With a doco you’ve got to convince someone to go on camera. There’s a lot of time on their behalf, and you’re really asking people to open up their lives in a way that can be quite invasive.
As well as that, some of them are sharing quite deep, or even shameful parts of their lives. Some of the stories we were told were just heartbreaking really. So it takes time and integrity. We just did what we said we would do – that’s the really key thing for any reporter really to hold on to.
When you were building up that trust with people, were there any moments that felt like a breakthrough?
I was most focused on Kawerau, and there’s a local Mongrel Mob guy who is in prison – his name is Karl Goldsbury. So we had to get into prison to see him, and Corrections were really helpful, but it was still a really long process to get to interview him. And we also had to build up trust and rapport with his mum. But then of course, you’ve still got to get in there and still get the interview. We hadn’t met Karl at that point, and he could change his mind or pull out at any second.
So he was in the Te Ao Marama unit in Waikeria Prison, and we were just blown away by this powhiri. We were welcomed on by about 40 or 50 inmates, and it’s part of the tradition when you get welcomed on. It was really powerful. We could see Karl, he’s a huge guy, and he was welcoming us on. And at that point we knew it was really going to happen. He’s quite a compelling character, very frank about his involvement in the meth scene, graduating from a user to a dealer then a supplier, and then a very dramatic arrest and fall from grace. And his mum was very frank and honest as well.
Why was Kawerau the place you chose to go to focus on?
One of the things that came up in the doco is that it seems meth has really entrenched itself in poorer communities. When it first cropped up in the late ’90s, it took off as a drug which was almost like a cool party drug. It’s a drug that affects a broad range of people, but in recent years there’s been a big shift and it has taken a stranglehold on a lot of poorer communities. And even a low-level retail dealer can have a big impact on a smaller community.
So when we were planning this, there was a big police operation in Kawerau, called Operation NOTUS. There’s different levels of policing in each district, and the police in Kawerau were frustrated with what they perceived as the increasing strength of the Mongrel Mob, accumulating wealth and peddling meth. They weren’t resourced to investigate organised crime – to do that you have to be up on the wire monitoring phone calls, or doing physical surveillance, cameras and all of that jazz. Even in the Bay of Plenty District, my understanding is that there wasn’t really the resources to do that. They do have an organised crime team, but if there’s a murder or something big, detectives get seconded.
So what happened was the National Organised Crime Group – normally they target very high end international syndicates – they got involved in this operation targeting the low level retail end. Basically they were tasked to do this job, and spent about six months working with and alongside key people in the Kawerau community. There’s about 6000 people in Kawerau, and the head of the job said they identified something like 600 users, so about 10% of the population. And there was a lot of social deprivation that went with that. So when they went in, it wasn’t just locking people up – I hate the word but it was a wraparound approach. They locked up dealers, but users were able to come forward and get help. And it was quite a new thing for police to do to have elite detectives looking at the lower end up the supply change.
You’re not talking about a total prohibition-based approach here, but did it seem like a two-track approach – health-based for users, criminal-based for dealers and cooks. Did it work?
Internationally the evidence is that the war on drugs hasn’t really worked. For methamphetamine, we can say after this documentary that simply targetting organised crime doesn’t work. The price of meth at the retail end – a point of a gram – is $100. It was $100 five, ten, twenty years ago as well. And that’s among the highest prices in the world. So even with more and more seizures and big investigations locking up bad guys – that alone hasn’t solved the problem. So there’s a growing realisation that there needs to be more of a health based approach to deal with demand, as well as supply. I think most people are on board with that approach now. A lot of the addicts we spoke to told us they didn’t choose to be addicts, and often they’re trying to escape some pretty shitty circumstances in their own lives.
However the issue we have in New Zealand is – you can treat it as a health issue, but where do these people go? There are already huge waiting lists for rehab and counselling, it’s very difficult to get treatment. So if we’re serious about dealing with this, I think a lot more money is going to have to be put into that side of it. That’s my personal thought, but after reporting on it for ten years I can say simply tackling the people bringing it in hasn’t worked.
You personally could pretty much choose to report on anything you wanted to. Why did you choose this?
I think it’s important, and something we haven’t quite come to grips with. As a journo you get frustrated writing the same story over and over again, you know what I mean? I enjoy writing about organised crime, and it’s interesting how police investigate it, but after a while you want to have a look at why. These big drug bust stories are all who, what, where. But the motivation with this one was why?
We wanted to tell some real human stories, and talk about an under the radar problem. And for a lot of people, like middle class New Zealanders who don’t have drug problems, we’re probably introducing a lot of them to a world where they might not have much sympathy with people who do. Someone who’s addicted, might not have a job, can’t feed the kids – people will look at that and say it’s terrible that they can spend money on drugs but not kids. But we wanted to challenge that and say this is a huge issue for our country, even if it doesn’t affect some people directly, it’s about the health of our society. And we wanted to challenge the perceptions that were held about these people.
It strikes me that there might not be a single journalist living and working for a national level publication in Kawerau, and a lot of towns would be the same.
No, I don’t think so. Some of these stories are very untold. There are obviously huge drug use issues in Auckland or Christchurch, but we wanted to get beyond where we lived. The areas with the highest proportion of meth usage, from memory, are Northland, the East Coast and the Bay of Plenty.
In a short profile of you I read a while ago, you said in a different life you might have had a career in criminal law. Would you be on the prosecution or defence?
I think when you’re a younger reporter, it’s a bit easier to get starstruck by the prosecution case, and the evidence, and easy to minimise the importance of a very good defence advocate testing the evidence. And I have a lot of respect for good defence counsel who stand up before their clients. And criminal law is not black and white – you might be guilty of something but not everything you’ve been charged with. Or you might be guilty as sin but there are extenuating circumstances as to why you’ve found yourself before the courts. So I’m sitting on the fence here, and earlier in my career I would’ve said Crown law. But I used to see things a bit more black and white.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The (non paywalled) NZ Herald documentary Fighting the Demon: Inside New Zealand’s Meth Crisis is streaming now.