The “meth myth” scandal engulfing New Zealand

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meth myth new zealand
Photo: Nathan Russell (CC2.0)

After years of upset and huge expense, New Zealand’s nationwide panic about homes being contaminated by methamphetamine (meth) residue has been thoroughly debunked by the new Labour government. Dubbed the “meth myth,” the state-backed hysteria led to tenants being evicted, landlords shelling out for needless testing and repairs, and home insurances cost increases for everyone.

“A jump of logic that makes no sense”

In August 2010 the New Zealand Ministry of Health issued guidelines for evaluating meth contamination in homes that had been former meth labs. Two mistakes appear to have followed:

  1. The Ministry proposed extremely conservative standards, and advised decontamination was recommended if at least 0.5μg (micrograms) per surface square meter was found.
  2. When the recommendations were updated in June 2017 to 1.5μg the Ministry failed to make it clear this recommendation was for former meth-labs only. Instead of testing only former meth labs, testing began in any home where someone may have smoked meth.

Other government agencies, including Standards New Zealand, began following the muddled advice, and before long a meth-testing industry had sprung up in New Zealand – the only one of its type worldwide. Homes across the country were being tested for meth residue from meth smoking (known as “third hand” meth exposure).

Unfortunately for the meth testers, the idea that third hand meth exposure posed any sort of risk to anyone was hokum. In a bombshell of a report issued May 30th, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman determined that the meth scare was nothing more than moral panic and bogus science.

“There’s absolutely no evidence in the medical literature anywhere in the world, of anybody being harmed by passive exposure to methamphetamine at any level,” he said in a statement to journalists. “We can’t find one case in the medical literature. We can’t find one case by talking to the experts. You can see there’s been a jump in logic along the way that makes no sense.”

Gluckman added colorfully, that even “a naked toddler crawling around the floor licking every bit of the floor up to several hours a day” was in no danger from third-hand meth exposure.

The authorities are finally waking up to the embarrassing truth, but the damage caused by the “meth myth” has been enormous and still has a way to run yet.

The meth myth lives on

Even though no other country engaged in any similar practices, the New Zealand authorities thoroughly embraced the meth myth in their policies.

The nation’s biggest landlord with 63,000 properties, Housing New Zealand, evicted hundreds of tenants after finding tiny, harmless amounts of meth residue in tests. Homes were routinely damaged “decontamination” procedures, requiring costly repairs. Some houses were demolished. And all of this was happening during a national housing crisis. Housing NZ estimates spending over 100 million New Zealand Dollars ($70.3 million) on meth testing and clean ups in the last four years.

And it is not just those unlucky enough to live in homes that tested positive for meth who are paying for the debacle. Every homeowner in the country has been forced to shoulder some of the burden thanks to rising home insurance premiums and deductibles.

New Zealand’s biggest insurer, IAG, has averaged 60 meth-related claims a month at an estimated annual cost of 14 million New Zealand Dollars ($9.8 million). To help stem the losses, IAG raised deductibles for meth claims rose from $400 to $2500 in December and removed all cover for contents.

Ten days on from Gluckman’s original report and AIG and other major insurers have yet to update their meth-related policies. This is because despite the meth-myth being debunked, Standards New Zealand has yet to officially update the country’s policy for meth contamination. Until it is officially changed, insurers are sticking with the now-discredited standards.

“If the standard changes as a result of the review, IAG will revise its approach at the appropriate time,” a spokesperson told the New Zealand Herald.

Labour spots the rort

The dramatic change in policy, when it does come, will be thanks to the efforts of Housing Minister Phil Twyford, who had been critical of New Zealand’s meth industry for years. When his Labour Party took power in a coalition in September 2017, he immediatley set about exposing what he suspected a “rort” – a New Zealand term for fraud.

Taking aim at the previous National Party government, he told Radio New Zealand, “I want to apologise to the people who were badly treated by the National Government – who were evicted, who were kicked out of their homes, they were forced to pay the cost of remediation on the basis of goodness knows what evidence.”

“All because the National Government played along with the hysteria of meth contamination in housing and failed to provide any kind of leadership…There is no question that people have been unfairly treated in this situation, and I’m directing Housing New Zealand to produce a comprehensive report on this entire episode.”

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