‘God grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change, the courage
to change the things I can, and the wisdom
to know the difference.’

Meetings of Narcotics Anonymous open and close with this prayer, which recognises that addicts can abstain from destructive behaviour, and even though the past cannot be changed, the present and future can.

The gathering is attended by half a dozen folk who meet regularly to share their struggles and triumphs in overcoming drug addictions. “You can’t do it alone,” one of the participants tells me. “We all need support.”

Each person has a turn to address the group, and they all begin by giving their name, and saying. “I am an addict.”

“I’ve been clean for 14 years,” a man in his 50s tells the group. “Last Thursday was my anniversary. I remember so well the day I decided, no more.” And he continues to tell his story, not of his distant past, but how recently he nearly “fell over” when bereavement, compounded by an argument with a loved one, were triggers for relapse.

“Relapse is all about triggers,” says drug and alcohol counsellor, Dennis Coon. “Loss of job, relationship break-up; any form of stress where everything becomes too hard. So we identify the triggers and put in place coping mechanisms; something positive to focus on, rather than the negative aspects of the trigger.”

While Dennis Coon deals with folk who have become addicted to drugs, Dave de Lange, head of Hawke’s Bay CIB, is charged with upholding the law proscribed in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

“We enforce the law in the different categories of drugs. Cannabis is class C, whereas the high ender drugs, like heroin and methamphetamine are class A. The categories reflect the seriousness and harm the drug can cause,” says Detective Senior Sergeant de Lange.

“Cannabis, ecstasy, and methamphetamine, or P, are the most common drugs we encounter.”

Cannabis

“Hawke’s Bay has a good climate to grow cannabis,” says Dave de Lange. “It’s grown all year round, outdoors during the summer when the climate is suitable, but there’s always cannabis being grown indoors.

Large scale cannabis is grown in the forestry and in the bush, and for indoor growing somebody will set up a room or a garage, usually in a rural area, but also in an urban setting, with artificial lighting and heating.

There’s money to be made, basically.
We focus on the drug-dealing houses. Mostly a ‘tinny house’ just sells cannabis. It’s not nice to have a drug-dealing house in your street. They disrupt the community, and drive other crime.

A lot of the drug-dealing houses have children living there and for them it seems acceptable and normal. And many children see their parents, their parents’ friends, and neighbours all using drugs, so the kids think it’s okay.”

Kids using drugs and alcohol is of major concern to Dennis Coon.

“Over the last five years we’ve had a lot of young people between the ages of 14 and 16 coming who are heavily into alcohol and drugs.

Some of these young people drink 10 to 12 cans of these ‘lolly water’ mixes in a sitting, and use cannabis at the same time. And synthetic cannabis is still about. You can get it from the local dairy. One’s called K2, and we’re very concerned about the damage it can do.

Young people’s bodies are still developing and they can do long-term damage. Our concern is that if they’re drinking and drugging at this age, what are they going to be like when they reach their 20s? We predict far reaching issues with mental health.”

Psychiatrist Greg Young confirms Dennis Coon’s concerns.

“A young person’s brain is growing and changing, and in males, that doesn’t stop until their mid-20s. We should be concerned about exposing a developing brain to any sort of chemical. It probably has to be accepted that many people can use cannabis and not become psychotic, but there’s a significant minority who are very vulnerable to its effects.

We know that some people who take cannabis or synthetic cannabis can present with worsening of psychosis. Some of them go on to have enduring problems. For a young person who is susceptible to schizophrenia, for instance, smoking cannabis can be disastrous.”

On my way home I visit a friend of 30 years who grows his own ‘dope’. I’ve telephoned first because I know he doesn’t like people just ‘popping in.’ His plants are scattered throughout his garden, and he has to point them out they’re so well concealed. He prunes and trains them to trail along the ground, a bit like cucumbers grow.

“I bought the seeds back from Thailand years ago,” he says. “I give some to my sister and keep the rest for personal.” I know his sister. She’s a teacher in Auckland, and a mother with three adult children. “A couple of ounces lasts her all year. She puffs up with her girlfriends.”

My friend is an advocate of de-criminalisation of cannabis. He compares it to alcohol, and eloquently points out the hypocrisy with the damage caused by our legally-sanctioned drug, alcohol, costing the taxpayer $4 billion a year.

Dave de Lange won’t be drawn into the politics of cannabis de-criminalisation, but he says, “We see the damage cannabis does, and it certainly has a big impact on the mental health sector, and a lot of cannabis users do move on to using other drugs.”

Ecstasy (MDMA)

E’s are synonymous with the rave dance culture that started in the late 1980s. Mostly taken in pill form, it’s made to a chemical formula: methylenedioxymethylamphetamine.

As CIB’s Dave de Lange points out: “Ecstasy is fashionable, and it’s easy to conceal. People drop one and they’re set up for the night. They don’t have to pop out and top up like a lot of other drugs.”

He suggests: “Have a yarn to some of the publicans, because they’re more aware of what the party drug scene is like, but we know people take their E and go out to the pubs and clubs partying, but they won’t drink any alcohol. They just drink water.”

I take his advice and ask the publican at one of Napier’s most popular bars.

“Sure,” she says, “there’s been an influx of people drinking only water. It used to be mid- to upper-class people, but we’re getting all sorts now. Maybe it’s because E’s got cheaper. I don’t know, but it’s not good for the bar business.”

Ecstasy is classified as an empathagen, and its original name for street sale was Empathy, but that changed to Ecstasy, because it sounded more marketable.

I ask psychiatrist Greg Young if the most ‘desirable’ effect of Ecstasy is how it breaks down the walls of communication by alleviating feelings of guilt, remorse, and fear.

“I don’t know much about E,” he says, “It doesn’t present to psychiatrists as much as cannabis and other drugs. But all drugs that chemically affect the brain have the potential to be damaging. Interestingly though, when you say Ecstasy reduces the feelings of guilt, remorse and fear, that’s exactly what alcohol does. But as Douglas Sellman has pointed out, alcohol is unique in increasing propensity to violence.”

Professor Douglas Sellman is director of the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago, and a staunch advocate of changing New Zealand’s drinking culture.

He doesn’t pull his punches when he says, “We await a government concerned enough about the victims of uncontrolled alcohol use and with guts enough to stand up to the alcohol industry. That day will come, just as it did with tobacco policy.” (The Press, 3 September 2012)

When I asked addiction counsellor Dennis Coon his opinion of the most destructive drug, he said, “Most people say methamphetamine, but I think the world’s worst drug is alcohol.”

Methamphetamine

Police spokesman, Dave de Lange, tells me heroin and the old home-bake have fallen off in favor of methamphetamine, and he’s deeply concerned of the effects this drug is having on individuals, families, and the wider community.

“Methamphetamine, or P as it’s mostly called, is really damaging,” he says. “From our experience we see people who have started using P and their deterioration is shocking, and it causes so much trouble for families. They can’t trust a member who’s got a drug habit. They try to help, but in the end they often just wash their hands of them. It’s very sad, but there often comes a time when tough love is the only answer.”

Penny calls herself, ‘a survivor of P,’ and tells me: “I became totally skinnied out, big bags under my eyes. I looked like a witch, but I’d look in the mirror and think I looked great.”

And, “Yeah,” she says, “the whole thing is so cloak and dagger, and even your best friend from 20 years – if they’re on it too – they’re the worst. You don’t trust anybody, and I met people who totally wrecked their lives, like this wealthy real estate agent driving a BMW ending up totally broke, riding a push-bike in a matter of a year. And another fella, a straight fella, forced to pay his debts with anal sex.”

Although Penny was a P addict for 10 years, she has successfully rehabilitated herself, and is 18 months clean, and it’s hard to believe the vibrant young woman I’m talking to was once, ‘skinnied out.’ But Penny has a theory of why she survived P.

“The dealer was this straight looking pakeha fella from a well-to-do family, and he explained to me how to smoke it properly to get maximum effect, and what happens in your brain if you don’t use it properly. And he told me that expression, ‘he’s fried or she’s fried,’ is right, because once your brain is fried, you stay fried. That means you’ve sizzled out all your serotonin, and you don’t recover.

Penny is adamant that P is not physically addictive. “I know that because I’d come back to Napier for a week and not think about P. All I needed was good feeds and heaps of sleep, and I was fine.” She says, “It’s not like heroin. It’s not physical, or wasn’t for me, it was all in my head. But P sure does fuck with your head.”

I tell Greg Young about Penny’s experience, and he says, “I think she’s making a distinction about how you experience the drug rather than whether it’s a mind or body drug. The brain is the brain for the body, and one of the symptoms of methamphetamine withdrawal is extreme lethargy and fatigue, sometimes to the point of incontinence in bed, because the person hasn’t the energy to get up. Is that a mental symptom or a physical symptom?”

So what does methamphetamine do to the brain?

“Basically it stimulates a massive release of brain chemicals, a whole variety of brain chemicals, but particularly chemicals that cause pleasure like dopamine and serotonin. They become depleted and that’s why at the end of the effectiveness of the drug people report feeling absolutely dreadful, and the only way they see to feel better again, is to take more of the drug.”

I ask Dr Young why some people are more vulnerable to addictions than others.

“That’s a very hard question to answer,” he says, “but we know a propensity to addiction is determined partly by genetic risk. Alcoholism can run in families. And often when you talk to people who have one kind of addiction, there are family members with other addictions, and a lot of guys I talk to who have cannabis or meth addictions, will have fathers or grandfathers who are alcoholics.

Also in some childhoods there’s a breakdown of security for the child and that child is in a state of constant vigilance. For whatever reason the child is vulnerable – a sexual predator might be on the scene – and that constant vigilance makes the child anxious. It’s wearing and the child wants relief from that, so alcohol or cannabis or glue or petrol, and nicotine, is a way of relief.

And the other thing is it’s hard to experience pleasure when you’re constantly vigilant. You can’t relax to experience pleasure, so you use a drug as a more direct route.”

I mention this to the publican who’s “sick to death” of people coming into her bar high on drugs.

“Insecurity? I don’t know about that,” she says. “We have a crowd who come in here, we call them ‘the powder crew’ and some of them run major businesses in Hawke’s Bay, and I know some of their wives are on P, and others take prescription drugs like Diazepam and Tramadol. I think it’s more about people wanting to be stimulated, always looking for a high, but then again, some of the men are like big kids who have never grown up.”

As Dave de Lange points out, “Drug use is across all sectors of society. It’s a choice people make and unfortunately for some people it has a really bad effect.”

And, says the policeman, “We draw a line in the sand. For better or worse, controlled drugs are illegal, and for me, saying a low level of drug taking is okay, is the same as saying a low level of family violence is okay. It’s not okay.”

‘God grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change, the courage
to change the things I can, and the wisdom
to know the difference.’

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