Methamphetamine is highly addictive. There seem to be very few people who can use it on a recreational basis and not become addicted. According to one source, 90% of those who try it once continue using.
However, not a lot of New Zealanders actually use it. In 2006, the Ministry of Health reported that methamphetamine is consumed by about 1.6% of adults - or 55,000 people. That’s 55,000 people too many - but compare that with the estimated 760,000 problem drinkers in New Zealand or the 800,000 cigarette smokers.
Despite the relatively small number of users, methamphetamine receives excessive media attention. Broadcaster Paul Holmes has been one of the main contributors to this hysteria. He began using his column in the NZ Herald to highlight its destructive influence after his daughter became involved with the drug. Former police officer turned drug educator, Mike Sabin, has also used the media to campaign for more treatment and greater efforts to reduce demand for methamphetamine. But the bulk of media stories have been about police efforts at closing down so-called meth labs - and headlines have trumpeted these stories as the ‘War on P’.
The death rate
Although methamphetamine is highly addictive and undoubtedly contributes to crime, the damage it causes pales in comparison to the social destruction caused by alcohol and tobacco. Approximately, 5,000 New Zealanders die from smoking cigarettes each year while alcohol kills about 1,000 a year. Although methamphetamine has been implicated in occasional media stories about murder, suicide and police car chases, overdose leading to death is rare - and there seems to be almost no research on the death rate.
In terms of the number of people it kills, Professor Doug Sellman from the National Addiction Centre in Christchurch says alcohol is 500 times more harmful than methamphetamine. Despite the small number of deaths, studies of public opinion show 94% believe methamphetamine causes serious harm, while only 39% think alcohol does. This is because of the way methamphetamine is portrayed in the media.
The political response
In it's comprehensive report on the need to reform New Zealand's liquor laws, the Law Commission recommended in 2010 that increased funding should be made available for the treatment of problem drinkers. The National Government ignored this and other key recommendations in the report.
But Prime Minister John Key did make a small financial package available for the additional treatment of methamphetamine addicts. This appears to have been the result of the media hysteria led by Sabin and Holmes, although the methamphetamine addict who burglarised John Key’s home in Parnell may have had something to do with it as well.
Whatever its motivation, National allocated $7 million a year for metham-phetamine treatment for the next three years. This was described by clinicians as a ‘drop in the bucket’ compared with the size of the country's drug and alcohol problems. The additional funding will enable only an extra 1000 people to be treated each year, which will make little difference to the treatment sector after years of under-funding and closures.
Making extra resources available to treat methamphetamine addicts ignores a fundamental reality - that alcohol is by far the most devastating drug of abuse in New Zealand. It facilitates most of the domestic violence, much of the child abuse, a third of all road deaths and half of all murders.