The weekend’s discovery of 494kg of methamphetamine on a Northland beach is hugely significant. Never before has such a large cache of the drug been found at one time in New Zealand. This single haul is more than the total combined amount of meth seized across the entire country in 2015.
Police estimate the drugs’ potential street value at nearly half a billion dollars, but it’s much harder to quantify the enormous social harm that amount of methamphetamine could cause. For every ounce consumed, users are damaged and those under the influence of methamphetamine often end up being dealt with by police in a range of criminal contexts. The many mental and physical health effects on users and their families ultimately falls to our health system to deal with. This is a huge social cost which has now been avoided because of the seizure of these drugs.
The vulnerability of New Zealand’s coastline was bought into stark focus in 1987 when French DGSE agents used a yacht to covertly land explosives, which would days later be used in the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. In 2000-01 there were three cases of large caches of narcotics being washed ashore in Pacific Island countries, and in 2012, a yacht carrying more than 200kgs of cocaine (and one dead sailor) was found beached in Tonga’s Vava’u group. These incidents highlight the fact that small states in our backyard can be a transit point to the larger New Zealand market. It’s notable that while the newly released 2016 Defence White Paper offers a fairly upbeat assessment about the likelihood of armed conflict in the Pacific, it points out that “Pacific countries face difficulties in effectively controlling their borders” and says this “vulnerability is being compounded by increasing transnational organised crime. This includes trafficking in illicit commodities such as drugs, wildlife and firearms”.
The massive Northland haul underscores how real this risk is, and the mind-boggling size of the cache indicates the confidence with which organised criminals believe they can move their product around or across the South Pacific and into New Zealand.
Police statements suggest gangs are involved in this most recent case. They almost certainly are – the size and nature of the haul of methamphetamine would require significant organisation at the point of production, conveying it from there to New Zealand, and then distributing it throughout the country. The reach of gangs into the international under-world in the Pacific and Asia should not be under-estimated and they are well aware of the points at which contraband could be brought in – usually undetected. It is not clear how much of the normal supply of methamphetamine into New Zealand this most recent haul represents, or what it tells us about the competence of those who try to import the drug – but it is a clear reminder to New Zealanders that they cannot be complacent about the nature of their physical environment, or the inventiveness of those who wish to exploit it.
Dr. John Battersby is the Police Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Photo credit: TVNZ