Dennis Makalio's heavily tattooed face fills the screen. The ink is so dense that from a distance it appears as one block of colour, but when you look closer 'Mobster' is spelled out clearly across his forehead.
The Mongrel Mob Rogue chapter senior member is recording a video every day in March for the Facebook group New Zealand 'P' Pull, an online support group run by him and his wife, social worker Lizzie Makalio. Today he's talking about the government's ongoing lack of funding for prevention and education versus the money that gets pumped into policing and prosecution.
With nearly 2000 members, New Zealand 'P' Pull is a place where methamphetamine addicts and their loved ones can share experiences and ask for help.
The group began as the official page for a community initiative by the Makalios and Westley Community Action to provide support in Porirua. Dennis calls it the "magic key" and says it has taken on a life of its own, attracting people from all over the country.
"When we started our page up, that became a tool on its own. Our committee, who are all ex-addicts, they see someone's cry for help—they go online and talk to them. We didn't have anything like that. It's amazing how many have come to us from our page and we've shown them different ways of getting help."
NZ P Pull coordinator Dennis Makalio, shot by photographer Jono Rotman for a series of Mongrel Mob portraits in 2015.
In posts that are often a raw stream of consciousness, members tell their stories of lives, careers and families destroyed by P—each a small universe that imploded while the rest of the world continued to turn. They share inspirational quotes, swap rongoā Māori remedies, and look for others to car pool to meetings with.
Many express their thanks for the "walk ins" where addicts can make contact in real life, either at informal family gatherings such as picnics, or at Westley Community Action in Waitangirua on Mondays.
"The walk in day was born the same time as the page," says Lizzie. "It was out of my own frustration of not being able to help someone out so it's a place where anyone can walk in and talk face to face with a real person and even more, a person who has or is experiencing the same journey.
"It's an amazing place to be on a Monday, we never know who is coming, and it's now run by the people who first walked in my door."
This year the Makalios are pushing hard to make P an election issue. Dennis calls it an "even playing field", as none of the political parties have ever taken up the cause as a health priority.
“That’s how we kinda got started. I launched this down here when we had the candidates campaigning for council… I invited them to the marae to talk about the issue of methamphetamine in Porirua, and if we elect them what would they do to help us. The two that really were passionate and even broke down and cried were the mayor [Mike Tana] and deputy mayor [Euon Murrell]. They were sheltered, like a lot of people today in New Zealand. Didn’t want to know about it.”
Ahead of the general election he’s planning to invite all political parties to discuss the issue.
“I’ve invited a lot of people, the Drug Foundation, doctors, any political parties, Ministry of Health. It’s a bit like what you do up in Waitangi except it’s here in our community.
“This issue is so big, that it will get people to vote. If one of the parties says they will help us, it will make people who never vote get off their ass and register. All of these parties will be invited to our campaign day. It’s up to them if they want to come or not. But whoever says they’ll help—they’re getting our votes.”
While amphetamine and speed-type drugs have been around in various legal and non-legal forms since World War II, methamphetamine found its way to New Zealand about 25 years ago.
Some of the ingredients include toluene (brake cleaner), ether (engine starter), sulphuric acid (drain cleaner), lithium (batteries), anhydrous ammonia (farm fertiliser) and kitty litter, as well as the active ingredient pseudo ephedrine, extracted from cold and flu medication that is mostly unavailable in New Zealand pharmacies now.
While its effects include an increase in dopamine—the chemical that makes us feel motivated, rewarded and in love—it also blocks dopamine reuptake and depletes natural dopamine and serotonin levels over time. Thus larger doses are required to feel the same level of euphoria, and larger doses translate to longer and harsher comedown periods. The side effects during a comedown include anxiety, paranoia, depression, and insomnia, which can lead to self-harming and suicidal thoughts and behaviour.
“This issue is so big, that it will get people to vote. If one of the parties says they will help us, it will make people who never vote get off their ass and register."
Dennis says it hit “northside of the Bombays” in the mid-1990s and had spread to the rest of the country by the year 2000. With a number of ‘action plans’ and ‘war on P’ strategies having been and gone, and a second generation of users emerging, Māori communities are fed up and are taking matters into their own hands.
In November last year, Waiheke Island hosted its first ‘meth hui’ at Piritahi Marae, after a rapid increase in use on the island over a six-month period.
Further up the country, during what was a relatively sober Waitangi Day for protest action, a group from Northland made the hīkoi from Cape Reinga to Waitangi to highlight the problem.
Lead by Reti Boynton and Janeen Rapira, the Meth-Free Tai Tokerau movement took their kaupapa to Te Tii and made an appeal of support to all iwi.
“Our main goal was to raise awareness,” veteran activist Boynton told Te Hiku Media. “A lot more people are in support of what we’re doing now. They’ve got more knowledge of what the problem is. Right now they can see the impact it’s having on other people; they can see the harm that it’s doing on all sorts of people across the board. We have reports from schoolteachers finding the stuff in school lunch boxes. You’re getting little kids that are drug trafficking. When they’re asked what they’re doing with this in their school lunch box the kids are replying ‘Oh I was asked to drop it off at this address on my way home from school.”
Reti Boynton and Janeen Rapiraled a hīkoi to Waitangi this year highlighting the problem of meth use in Tai Tokerau and appealing for support from all iwi and Northland communities.
It seems strange anyone could be unaware of the problem of P after all this time. It makes the headlines often enough.
Ross Bell of the NZ Drug Foundation estimates there is one degree of separation between all New Zealanders and someone who has been affected by the drug. But like so many social issues, he believes those at the top find it too easy to dismiss for being a “poor, brown people problem.” Although for a period it wasn’t.
He uses the high profile case of Millie Holmes as an example. Daughter of the late broadcaster Paul Holmes and Hinemoa Elder, model Millie Holmes made headlines in 2007 after admitting to a $1000-a-day P habit after her arrest on a number of possession charges
“Meth had been a problem before Millie came along,” says Bell. “But it wasn’t until Paul Holmes fronted outside that courtroom and said ‘Millie’s got a problem and we’re going to help her’, that a group of wealthy, Pākehā Aucklanders got together and formed the group Stellar Trust, which was designed to highlight the problem. And they then influenced John Key to introduce his meth plan. We tried to work with them but I was kind of offended. They only came along when they realised this meth problem was a rich person’s thing too. Where were they? Where were all these people before Millie?”
With the Stellar Trust no longer active, it seems dedication by the upper crust to stamping out the scourge of P has been left by the wayside once more and money for necessary resources continues to be scarce—leading to long, life threatening waiting times.
Bell says addicts reaching out for help who are knocked back and told to wait often never make contact again.
“When someone finally gets to the point where they are in that real chaotic situation – they may have lost their job or been kicked out of home. They may have been arrested or crashed their car—that’s when they get the wake up call to put down the pipe. They ring up the treatment organisation and that organisation says ‘we’ll pencil you in for assessment in a couple of weeks time. Then we’ve got a waiting list of eight weeks or 12 weeks for treatment.' What does that individual do? The window of motivation is narrow and as soon as they’re told ‘we cant see you for a while’ in most cases, people just continue to use.”
Bell adds that being put on a waiting list is in fact the best-case scenario for many. A lot of treatment is largely unavailable to anyone in the provinces.
“If you’re in Auckland, you’re sweet. You’re well looked after. There’s good youth services, good adult services, residential services, the drug courts. Auckland is sweet but if you live outside of Auckland, Northland being a great example of where there is a lack of services—no services at all—what do you do?
The kind of responsiveness we’ve seen from marae in emergency situations could also be used for drug services.
“We still have about 35,000 people a year who want help and can’t get help. That’s not just for meth, that’s for alcohol and other drugs. We’ve never adequately funded treatment and that should be addressed by putting more money into it. The simple solution is doubling or tripling the treatment budget. We’re not talking about a lot of money either...”
It’s hard to pin down where the money has been spent so far in the war against P.
The Ministry for Health’s 2016 Drug Harm index says that $16.4 million dollars has been spent across three areas—health, police/customs and courts/corrections. However, there’s no breakdown of what proportion of funds has been spent on education programmes, treatment and counseling, hospital admissions and emergency treatment, police, customs and law enforcement, and courts and prisons.
The Index finds that the government has invested $351.4 million in total for intervention in all drug types ($16.4 million for amphetamine-type stimulants)—for an overall problem of drug abuse that causes $1.5 billion of harm to the community each year.
Dennis Makalio says barely any money has gone where it’s most needed—prevention and education.
“It goes back to 2006 when they launched the methamphetamine action plan. That’s how far back it goes to where there’s been no money put into preventional education. We’re talking about millions that have gone into the ‘war on meth’ and nothing that’s gone into prevention.”
Bell says that the services that work best for Māori—kaupapa Māori-driven models—exist already, but need government support.
“The one that has been running for a while is at Hoani Waititi marae in West Auckland. Shane White is running that, and of course Pita Sharples was running it before Shane. What we’ve seen with the Kaikoura earthquake, homelessness in South Auckland and other things recently, is that marae are really stepping up. The kind of responsiveness we’ve seen from marae in emergency situations could also be used for drug services. Hoani Waititi is a good example of that.
"What we’re going to see is while DHB-funded services muck around, we’re going to see Māori stepping up and saying, ‘f**k, it we’re gonna do our own thing’. And government should be supporting those to exist and to grow.”
More in the media
New Zealand P Pull hui (NZ Herald)
Hastings Mongrel Mob lodges Waitangi claim to stomp out ‘P’ (Māori Television)
Marchers send clear anti-meth message (Gisborne Herald)
Nannies against P (RNZ)
Tauranga's P problem 'bigger than Rena' (Bay Of Plenty Times)
Where to get help
Alcohol Drug Helpline – 0800 787 797 or text 8681 (open 24/7)
Lifeline – 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757