The new Government wants to end a ‘moral panic’ around meth testing of rental properties by lifting the trace levels seen as dangerous. Baz Macdonald and Lynn Grieveson report.

Housing Minister Phil Twyford has slammed the meth testing industry and the previous Government for allowing a moral panic that saw over 900 families evicted from state homes because standards they created meant trace levels of methamphetamine were seen as dangerous.

Twyford made the comments on Tuesday as he revealed he had asked for official advice on better standards for measuring what was a truly dangerous level of methamphetamine in rental homes.

He told reporters he had instructed Housing New Zealand to reduce the number of vacant houses, many of which had been emptied after the state house provider detected trace levels of methamphetamine indicative of previous smoking rather than the more dangerous activity of manufacturing.

“One of the things I have been concerned about is the ridiculous waste caused by the previous Government’s policy of dealing with methamphetamine contamination in state houses which led in the last three years to 900 state houses left lying empty on the basis of a methamphetamine contamination standard that cannot distinguish between genuine contamination,” Twyford said.

“My intention is that we are going to sort out the methamphetamine standard that I don’t think is fit for purpose because it can’t distinguish between genuine contamination that is a risk to people’s health and a residue that is not a risk to anyone’s health,” he said.

Newsroom reported in depth on the issue of meth testing in October, citing drug researchers’ comments that even a recently revised standard vastly over-estimated the risks to human health. Standards NZ raised the maximum acceptable level of meth contamination to 1.5 micrograms per 100cm2 from 0.5 earlier this year. The National Government also presented an amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act in July which would give landlords more rights in testing for meth on their properties and, as a result, would cement this new standard into law. The bill passed its first reading and is now in the select committee stage.

Massey University applied environmental chemist Dr Nick Kim reported to the NZ Drug Foundation last year that 0.5 micrograms (and now 1.5) were incredibly conservative numbers and that the lowest amount he could conceivably imagine a health effect occurring would be around 12 micrograms/100cm2. He said the lowest dose recorded to have a pharmaceutical effect is still 500 times higher than this 12-microgram figure, or over 3000 times higher than the 1.5 level set in the new standard.

Twyford said the previous standards were “pretty useless” and both Housing NZ and private landlords were in an invidious position having to use standards that were not meaningful.

Landlords in invidious position

“The situation is unresolved at the moment because all Housing NZ has to go on — the same as any private landlord — is a standard that I believe is probably not fit for purpose,” he said.

“They don’t want to see their tenants’ health put at risk. They want to do the right thing, and all they can rely on is a government sanctioned official standard.”

Twyford said he had not ruled out compensation for tenants wrongly evicted by Housing New Zealand. He said the Government’s first task was to sort out the correct standard, although he agreed that tenants wrongly evicted should be given priority on waiting lists.

Twyford commented on the issue on Friday when he apologised to an evicted Housing New Zealand tenant and said he was looking at changing the standards.

“You may have seen recently reported a guy named Robert Erueti over what was a very, very tiny amount of methamphetamine that was found in his property. I don’t think there was any suggestion he was responsible for that. Somebody clearly was, but there’s no suggestion he was a methamphetamine user. He was evicted from his house and spent the last 14 months living in a grotty boarding house and then homeless,” he said.

“It’s a mad policy, it was unfair, and it’s absurd when we are spending a whole lot of time and money trying to house people who have addiction problems to then evicting people with addiction problems and making them homeless. There has to be a better approach.

“There has been a moral panic around this whole issue that I think was a result of the vacuum in political leadership under the former Government. They allowed the situation to go on for three years. $75 million of taxpayers’ money wasted on testing, decontamination and remediation by Housing New Zealand.”
Exploiting a ‘mad moral panic’

Twyford said he expected the review of standards to take a number of months.

He described the debate around meth contamination in previous years as a “mad moral panic.”
“I think that the meth testing industry whipped up this moral panic and exploited it to make a dollar. But the people who I really hold responsible for this current mess are the former Govnemrent because of a lack of political leadership they allowed this to happen,” he said.

“You expect industries to try to make a dollar and maximise their market position. But we expect Government to set rules in a way that is in the interests of the public good, and that didn’t happen in this case.”

Helping tenants, rather than evicting them

Twyford told RNZ on Friday that Housing New Zealand would in future focus on helping tenants struggling with drug dependency, rather than evicting them.

Twyford wants Housing New Zealand to return to its pastoral care mandate, a function which he said the company used to have before the National government.

“I felt that the former Government stripped them of that pastoral care role. They got rid of a lot of the frontline staff and really treated the organisation like a property management company,” Twyford told Newsroom last week.

“To be causing people with addiction problems to be homeless deliberately is just completely nuts.”

Twyford said that this goal was shared by Housing New Zealand  CEO Andrew McKenzie, who started in the role 14 months ago.

“Andrew McKenzie believes that not just in relation to meth testing, but in general, Housing New Zealand should be taking an approach which is more about sustaining tenancies – recognising that many of the people who live in state houses are people who have lots of challenges in their lives and that is it appropriate that Housing New Zealand should take a compassionate, rather than punitive approach,” Twyford said.

The Government and Housing New Zealand are still working out the details of how this new mandate would be enacted, but Twyford said the new approach was already in play.

“I don’t think from now on you are going to see the kind of evictions that we have seen,” he said.

Conflicts of interest

New Zealand Drug Foundation director Ross Bell has previously petitioned the Government to reconsider the standards, given it was supposed to deal with clandestine methamphetamine laboratories, and not meth usage.

Bell said the standard was also created with considerable conflicts of interest. Of the 21 consultants on the standard, ten were representatives of the meth testing industry, he said.

He said the Drug Foundation had struggled to get information out of Housing New Zealand previously, but the dialogue had improved since the arrival of McKenzie.

Bell said he would like to see a new standard developed by scientists, without interference from industry representatives.

“I don’t think they should have any involvement. They have proved time and time again that they have been able to exploit a moral panic around methamphetamine. So, I think they should get them a million miles away from the fresh look at the standard,” Bell said.

“It should be scientists. If they have a committee of scientists, I will accept whatever they come up with.”

Baz Macdonald is completing a masters in journalism at Massey University in Wellington.

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