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Senior Constable AJ Munro is sending out an SOS for Tokoroa as its proud heritage as a timber town risks being overshadowed by drugs, particularly synthetics, which are cheaper than meth and with deadlier outcomes. Photo: ELLEN BROOK

Provincial New Zealand is the poor cousin when it comes to resources to fight organised crime and drug addiction. Two of those towns, just 100 kilometres apart, show what a difference targeted police operations can make. Ellen Brook reports.

Meth dominates the headlines, but it’s synthetics that are proving just as destructive in the South Waikato town of Tokoroa.

For the past three years, Senior Constable AJ Munro, a youth aid officer, has been trying to highlight the drug problem that is ruining his patch of heartland New Zealand.

He’s been sending out an SOS ever since so-called synthetic cannabis was, firstly, legalised, then criminalised and, most recently, classified as a Class A drug.

It’s all too late for Tokoroa, he says. “The genie is out of the bottle.” Up to 60 per cent of police work in the town is related to family harm, and, from where he sits, he says, it’s synthetics that are a serious driver of that harm.

The chemical-laced plant material, that bears only passing resemblance to cannabis, is easy to access through an efficient supply chain from Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga and a willing cohort of dealers, and it’s much cheaper than meth.

The stories are enough to make your hair stand on end. From the 2½-week-old baby, wearing only a nappy, lying awake and blue on a cold morning in the arms of her spaced-out father to the “zombies” walking about the town and the dealers who openly operate next door to a primary school.

Toxin-laden synthetics put people in a trance-like state and those coming down from it become irritable, paranoid and violent.

And it’s a killer. Nationwide, synthetics have caused the deaths of 80 people in the past two years, more than any other drug in New Zealand. On that score, meth doesn’t get a look in.

It was three years ago when AJ, chair of the Police Association’s Taupō Area Committee, first set out his concerns in his annual report about “this new zombie synthetic drug”.

For vulnerable people in his community “looking to gloss over the situations they are in”, a $20 synthetic “cone” was more affordable and did the same job as a $100 point bag of meth, he said. He added this warning: “The poor decision some years ago to allow the legal importation and sale of this toxin has become apparent and the social cost is going to be massive.”

By 2018, things hadn’t improved: “You don’t need to view the Walking Dead or zombies on TV. You just need to patrol some of our urban streets and see them for real. During one enquiry, I found four individuals at an address, completely out of it on synthetics. They were oblivious to my presence.”

In June this year, AJ reported on the tiny baby found with her drug-addled father. “The power of this drug must be quite something for a parent not to even have the slightest concern for the wellbeing of their infant child.”

It’s utterly depressing, he says, “and, while the high profile of methamphetamine still consumes the media, what about the people dying from this toxin?”

Fortunately, there haven’t been any deaths in Tokoroa directly related to synthetics, but the flow-on effects from chronic drug use are apparent.

“I’ve seen normal working families who start to use meth and synthetics, people in their mid-30s, and it actually affects everyone in the community from schools to workplaces.”

Local police continue to be proactive on warrants, but taking out the dealers is a bit like playing whack-a-mole – you nab one and another one pops up almost straight away.

“We’ve got all the gangs here – Black Power, Mongrel Mob, Head Hunters and Rebels – who find many willing recruits to work as dealers. For a beneficiary, dealing synthetics is an instant source of money. It’s accessible, cheap and you can set up straight away. No preparation involved.”

This low-rent local market provides very little in the way of visible asset seizures, unlike meth, which currently gets the lion’s share of police resourcing due to its high street price and associated high-value chattels.

AJ’s view is that the harm caused by synthetics is just as bad – or worse, when the death toll is considered.

“Why should financial asset seizure decide what area gets more resource put into it? The metropolitan areas get first call and small communities like ours will have to wait before any more resource is coming to stem the tide of harm that drugs cause.”

Meanwhile, he says, that harm is getting worse, and there aren’t many local resources targeting rehabilitation. For that, people are at the mercy of waiting lists in Hamilton and Auckland.

Despite the challenges, AJ remains positive. He loves his job and is visibly proud of the down-to-earth, hard-working people who make up the bulk of Tokoroa’s population of just under 14,000.

When he began policing there in 2003, it was still a vibrant community, with a thriving CBD and forestry and dairy industries on its doorstep, even though there had been a decline in jobs due to mechanisation and outsourcing.

Decades earlier, Tokoroa had been carefully planned as a service town for the Kinleith pulp and paper mill, with the distinction of being developed by a company – New Zealand Forest Products – rather than by the state.

“They were really solid, beautifully built houses… built to last,” AJ says.

The wooden Pine Man sculpture, erected in the main drag in 2004, acknowledges the town’s debt to timber, but in recent years Tokoroa’s fortunes have become more entwined with Fonterra’s nearby Litchfield plant – the biggest producer of dried milk powder in the southern hemisphere.

It’s hard to imagine a street statue being erected to that, and it’s also a little harder to be so optimistic these days.

There are frequently beggars in the streets, which are dotted with empty shops, and the town’s Glenview Holiday Park is no longer a destination for summer holidaymakers, keen to explore the scenic lakes and countryside, but a permanent home for those who can’t afford house rentals. A small caravan costs about $150 a week.

The town has many lower-skilled workers and these days, says AJ, you can’t even get bush work without some sort of higher training certificate or qualification.

Although he lives out of town now, AJ and his wife and two daughters all work in Tokoroa. He’s spent his entire policing career in the area.

It’s a multicultural place, with good relations among all nationalities and ethnicities, including local iwi Ngāti Raukawa and a large Pacific Island community – mainly from the Cook Islands – who arrived as assisted immigrants to work at the mill.

“What do we do at the weekends? Sports, hunting, fishing and… gaming. Fortnite! Kids are maxing out their parents’ credit cards on that.”

While Tokoroa is not exactly thriving any more, it appears that local house prices have been a drawcard for people from bigger centres. Consequently, there has been an upturn in property prices and a bit more employment with some new businesses opening up.

AJ knows Tokoroa’s problems are not unique, but this is his town and he wants to fix it. Unfortunately, he’s had to admit that, in the face of the synthetics crisis, “police can’t solve it – we are just a stopgap”.

As a youth aid officer, his focus is on keeping young people away from drugs, particularly synthetics. Thankfully, most are “enlightened to the dangers”, he says. “They have seen the effect it has on adults. They prefer cannabis. The trouble is, you never can tell what you’re getting; it’s often cut with something.”

And so it goes…

Meanwhile, an hour and half away, 50 kilometres west of Rotorua, is another provincial pulp and paper mill town – Kawerau, population 7000.

Until last year, police there were also fighting a losing battle against drugs.

This socially and economically deprived town was in the grip of the Mongrel Mob, which was making millions from meth and not afraid to show it off with ostentatious displays of wealth, mostly in the form of expensive motor vehicles.

It was basically a PR and recruitment drive, says Senior Sergeant Al Fenwick, rural response manager for Western Bay of Plenty, who took over as OC in Kawerau five years ago. “Young kids with no hope saw the gang life as glamorous – brand-new cars, no work – this is how you get ahead!

“We were working 24/7 targeting the dealers, but hardly making a dent. The gangs were getting stronger in their niche market and growing organised crime in Bay of Plenty. But we were the poor cousin when it came to resourcing. There seemed to be no glory or interest in our little town.”

Local police were incredibly frustrated. In 2016, Senior Constable Stu Turnbull raised a flag in Police News with the memorable and disturbing quote that, in Kawerau, meth was easier to buy than a pint of milk.

“Gangs know there is less chance of getting caught in some rural areas due to lack of policing resources,” he said. “Success stories from the metropolitan areas are being heralded as a victory over organised crime and that police are on top of things. Sadly, the reality in the provinces is the opposite. In relative terms, the damage in rural areas is just as big as in the city, but possibly not as high profile.”

The message from Kawerau eventually filtered through to the upper echelons of Police and Operation Notus was launched in 2017 under the control of the National Organised Crime Group (NOCG), which usually deals only with high-level drug investigations at the top of the supply chain.

The NOCG brought its covert surveillance expertise – intercepting phone calls, planting tracking devices and using hidden cameras – into play and up to 300 staff were involved in the operation over six months.

It was clinically effective. More than 50 people were arrested and $2 million of property and assets were frozen and seized, including the flashy autos.

“That was one of the most pleasing parts,” says Al, “taking away all those symbols of wealth, which reduced their visibility and influence.”

Most of those arrested are now in jail.

The impact on the town was almost instantaneous. In the three months after the arrests in March 2018, crime was reported to have dropped by 34 per cent, with a 50 per cent decline in violent offending.

A second, sweep-up phase of Operation Notus has been under way this year to “fill the gaps” and keep the pressure on.

The challenges are not over. Meth is still being used and there are limited resources for rehab, but the police operation was a tipping point for many users, says Al, with nearly 60 self-referring for treatment.

“We’re feeling optimistic again and our main focus now is to give youth an alternative to a gang lifestyle.”

The story of Operation Notus is a clear example of what is possible with targeted resourcing and Al knows that what has happened in Kawerau is the envy of many other provincial areas. “Opotiki is where we were at three years ago. They would love to have a similar operation there.”

As, no doubt, would Tokoroa.

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