The war on meth
If the phrase “the war on drugs” has lost some of its impact in recent years, Police’s National Clandestine Laboratory Team has no doubt that is exactly what they are engaged in when combating the manufacture and supply of methamphetamine. Despite record-breaking meth busts by police in the past year, this specialist team won’t be out of a job any time soon. Ellen Brook reports.
If you’re in the illegal drugs trade, methamphetamine is almost the perfect product.
It’s easy to make; it’s easy to distribute; it generates its own demand as users need ever-increasing amounts to get consistent highs; and it brings huge, tax-free profit margins.
With such incentives, organised crime groups are highly motivated to protect and grow their business.
As Wellington’s Clandestine Laboratory Team OC, Sergeant George Campbell, says: “When you’re manufacturing a product that you can sell for between $100,000 and $1 million, getting caught and having all your equipment taken away is not desirable, so these groups do a lot to avoid detection.”
Meth use seems to be escalating, according to National Clan Lab Team boss Senior Sergeant John Brunton and his staff.
Their observations are backed by evidence from communities around New Zealand and by the most recent figures on reported drug use by police detainees, which show reduced cannabis and alcohol consumption and increased demand for meth*.
“Our borders are busier than ever,” John says, “and the importation of methamphetamine and its precursors are an unwanted part of the increasing trade. China is a key source country and organised crime groups are usually responsible.”
As the conflict intensifies, his teams, based in Auckland and Wellington, are proactively policing gangs and other dealers. They work with information from Customs, the chemical industry, retail outlets, property managers and covert sources. They are working online, where precursors and equipment are bought and sold on the black market; on the road, where illegal cargo is transported; and in homes and buildings, where meth cooks labour over their dodgy chemistry sets.
“It’s really not difficult to make meth, you just follow the recipe, and it doesn’t take long,” John says.
It’s possible to make a batch in a few hours, which means it can be hard to catch offenders in the act. Some mobile labs are transported in little more than a large chilly bin.
A cook who works swiftly, who can fix things when they go wrong and who avoids blowing up his meth kitchen – a sure way to alert the authorities – is considered a valuable asset to the gangs that have secured his services.
Some cooks are better than others.
John recalls one hapless offender who, knowing police were about to enter his home meth lab, set the place on fire; he then panicked, jumped out a window, cut his leg and, as he tried to escape, stood on his own booby trap – a board of protruding nails.
During another raid, the cook blew off the garage door and set the house on fire as he tried to destroy the evidence.
Such summary natural justice also serves to show how dangerous these clan labs can be.
In fact, they are the stuff of health and safety nightmares, crammed with toxic, corrosive and carcinogenic chemicals, stored unsafely on kitchen benches and in fridges, or being heated in rickety arrangements of condensers, funnels and flasks.
There is an ever-present threat of fire and explosions.
The teams have seen what can happen to offenders – some don’t escape with their lives – so don’t take any unnecessary risks.
|Detective Sergeant Rhys Wilson is the newest fulltime member of John’s team. He did a science degree before becoming a cop, so there is a certain symmetry to his career path. He is holding a Parr bomb – a pressure cooker device that speeds up the chemical reaction, reducing the time taken to cook meth. It’s made on the black market for the black market and has no legitimate use.|
Once a lab has been identified, or is suspected, the initial entry is usually made by the Armed Offenders Squad, wearing respirators and hazard suits, with no inch of skin exposed.
The AOS enters with five to 20 officers, depending on the size of the operation. Their job is to flush out any offenders at the scene and seize any firearms – which now go hand in hand with gang-controlled premises.
Once they have the all-clear, the clan lab assessment team goes in to collect evidence. That group includes two clan lab officers, a photographer, a scene of crime officer and an ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research) chemist, who provides specialist advice on what they are dealing with.
They are all well protected against any chemicals that could penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream.
“We are happy to go overboard with our protective equipment,” John says, “but it does have its downside at this time of year, with heat fatigue becoming an extra concern.”
The crew open as many windows as they can to vent the property of toxic vapours, such as those produced by the solvent toluene, which smells like paint thinner and can affect the skin. “It makes you go reddish and blotchy – a sure sign you’ve been exposed to it,” John says.
A thorough hosing-down follows each such exposure.
The teams visit about 70 clan labs a year. It’s not the healthiest of work environments, John admits, “but all staff have regular health check-ups, and ongoing monitoring confirms we remain a healthy unit”.
And, he says, despite the risks, it’s really important work. “We don’t like people making and selling drugs in our community.
“We hear and see plenty of sad stories and there’s no lack of motivation to do this work.”
John’s concerns are echoed in other parts of the country where meth continues to make its mark, replacing cannabis in many communities.
Senior Constable Stuart Turnbull, of the Kawerau Tactical Crime Unit, says he can’t remember the last time he did a cannabis warrant. For the past couple of years, he has been working fulltime on meth-related crime and is concerned about Police focus shifting so much towards burglaries, “even when most of the burglaries are to get cash for meth”.
Stuart says the meth problem in rural areas is every bit as bad as in the cities and he believes it will soon surpass metropolitan areas.
Gangs, he says, know there is less chance of getting caught in some rural areas due to lack of police resources.
“Success stories from the metropolitan areas are being heralded as victory over organised crime and that police are on top of things. Sadly, the reality in the provinces is the opposite. Unemployed gang members are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and meth is easier to buy than a pint of milk,” he says.
John also has grave concerns about gangs trying to gain mainstream credibility and making themselves attractive to young people.
“Like any business, they want more customers. It’s important to keep our focus on the gangs and remind our public not to get complacent about them. It’s too easy for the gangs to get hold of our kids. That is a risk we need to mitigate.”
The meth trade is pretty much all gang-controlled, he says, and, as the stakes get higher in terms of financial gain and potential loss of assets, the gangs are getting smarter.
In the mid-2000s, up to 200 labs a year were being busted and a few were smaller, so-called “mom and pop” labs.
These days, with the trade essentially taken over by organised crime, the people running the labs are getting shrewder all the time, especially as they try to avoid the long arm of the Police Asset Recovery Unit.
Police is committed to the Methamphetamine Action Plan – a joint initiative with other government agencies – and the more recent Gang Action Plan.
The links are undeniable, but action plans are based on the long-term and it’s the here and now that exercises the minds of frontline police officers.
Police Association President Chris Cahill, who has spent much of his career in the drugs and organised crime arena, says the challenge is for Police management to ensure organised crime teams are appropriately staffed and resourced to lead the Police action plans.
“Police identify organised crime as a key driver of crime, but that is not always followed up with a district focus or the commitment of staffing and resources,” he says.
“There is evidence to show that targeting drug dealing in an area has a significant impact on the reduction of both volume and violent crime and goes straight to Police’s focus on prevention.”
District commanders need to respond to this driver of crime with the same enthusiasm they apply to other areas, he says.
* The proportion of detainees who had used meth in the previous year rose from 28 per cent in 2012 to 36 per cent in 2015. The number who felt dependent on meth increased from 22 per cent in 2011 to 35 per cent in 2015.