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Opinion: Meth myth was allowed to go on for too long

30 May 2018
This article was published 6 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

In this opinion piece, first published on the Stuff website, Executive Director Ross says much suffering would have been avoided if run away methamphetamine testing had been tackled sooner. 

It was shocking to hear Sir Peter Gluckman say a baby could crawl on the carpet in a home where methamphetamine had been consumed without coming to harm.

Serious and sober as the PM's Chief Science Advisor is, he chose this particularly arresting image. He did this for good reason: he wanted to underline the finding that there is no evidence to show exposure to third-hand methamphetamine in your home is a health risk. It's not a new message but it is plainly stated in his new report.

The shock is amplified when you think how many children have been removed from safe, secure homes on the back of misplaced testing and clean-ups. Some of this occurred at the hands of the country's largest landlord whose role is to act as a backstop for vulnerable people. Under the National Government Housing NZ evicted scores of people, and withdrew 900 houses from its rental pool.

Wrenching away the stability and security a home offers, without proper cause, is a cruel blow. It's one that too many of New Zealand's most vulnerable citizens have had to face. There are also those who had costs awarded against them in Tenancy Tribunal cases. The hefty penalties will leave many in debt for years, and some will never be able to pay them back. 

More and more cases can be expected to come to light, where a runaway methamphetamine testing and clean-up industry has profited at the expense of tens of thousands of New Zealanders. We can all feel a justifiable sense of outrage.

 As we let the scale of the problem sink in, it's useful to cast an eye back to understand how things got so out of hand, and why lacklustre efforts to rein in the industry came to nothing. 

This whole sorry saga could have been cut off at the pass at many junctures. Guidelines for the remediation of properties used as a laboratory for the manufacture of methamphetamine were released by the Ministry of Health in 2010. They contain nothing whatsoever about the dangers of third-hand exposure in dwellings where methamphetamine has been smoked. 

The burgeoning industry seized on the guidelines to promote their services and raised the spectre of widespread 'contamination'. The Ministry of Health was silent on this misappropriation of the guidelines. Having not been put right, the industry stole a march. 

As reports surfaced that Housing NZ tenants were being evicted after the presence of methamphetamine was detected in their rental homes, the agency stood its ground. Any illegal behaviour would not be tolerated. When asked about this, Bill English, Housing New Zealand Minister at the time, and Housing Minister Paula Bennett both endorsed the hard-line approach. 

By early 2016 the dubious practices of testing companies and astronomical figures for remediation were being called into question. Horror stories abounded. In the face of public concern, Building Minister Dr Nick Smith accepted the need for tighter rules for testing businesses. Standards NZ embarked on a review of existing guidelines. With a committee stacked with industry representatives and a limited remit, it was no surprise the resulting standards were barely different from the existing ones. The decision by Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi to review the process is welcome. But how did they get the science so wrong?

A number of independent scientists, and even the Fair Go team, made efforts to debunk the myths perpetuated by the industry. When scientists pushed back with facts at hand, they were portrayed merely as a competing voice. 

The Ministers at the time failed to give due weight to the science, and their decisions seemed to be clouded by the interests of industry. Calls for regulations fell on deaf ears. This happened at a time when the government proudly launched its own drug policy in 2015 founded on the principles of compassion, innovation and proportion.  

The apology made by Housing Minister Phil Twyford to Robert Erueti - a Housing NZ tenant who was evicted based on discredited test results - signalled a welcome change in direction by the new government. Twyford commented that a kind of moral panic over methamphetamine had taken hold, and it was vital the standards be revisited by independent scientists.

The announcement yesterday that Housing NZ is applying the findings of the new report and making vacant properties available for rent is a relief for very many families. Leaving the door open to compensate those unfairly impacted by evictions is the right thing to do. The long overdue move to regulate the industry will stem the most exploitative behaviour. 

As the dust settles on this, it's impossible not to reflect how things could have been very different if scientific rigor free from the vested interests of commercial operations had been injected much sooner. How much distress could have been avoided? And countless millions saved? From this point forward it's vital that evidence guides the way we address complex drug policy issues.

Ross Bell is Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.





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