Why the shambles over P-contaminated houses is a wrong that must be righted

by The Listener / 08 June, 2018

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Housing New Zealand must compensate the blameless state-house tenants evicted over P-contaminated houses without minimising the drug's illegality and social menace.

It’s hard to overstate the incompetence and, in some cases, sheer callousness that have characterised the eviction of tenants in the past couple of years after trace levels of methamphetamine were found in rental houses. The epidemic of expulsion has, not without reason, been called a witch-hunt and a moral panic. But the cause is plain and simple: trusted officials erroneously equated tiny traces detectable after drug usage with the full-blown toxic contamination left in actual meth (P) lab premises and set rules on that basis.

It now transpires that traces on surfaces, such as those left by P use, are harmless to subsequent occupants, yet people in homes where someone, sometime, smoked P have been treated the same as manufacturers and dealers. Perfectly safe homes were left vacant indefinitely in what, even before the scientific evidence kicked in, began to look like a counterproductive overreaction.

Somewhere between the Ministry of Health, which first set minimum trace guidelines, and Standards New Zealand, which revised them last year, the evidence for meth-trace harm got seriously misconstrued. Had the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, not got around to ordering some double-checking on the policy – an investigation commissioned, or at least prompted, by Housing Minister Phil Twyford – this oppressive and wasteful process may have continued forever. The major regret, given that the terms of reference for the Chief Science Adviser explicitly state he may propose matters for research, is that this work was not conducted when dismayed scientists first raised concerns two years ago.

The same house-clearing zealotry should now be applied to identifying how health officials set the initial guidelines and how Standards NZ came merely to tweak rather than fully assess these later on. Both agencies are entrusted with life-and-death responsibilities. What else might they have bungled?

It’s tempting to criticise the businesses that made money in the sudden mushrooming of testing and decontamination, but they were only following the edicts of trusted officials. Still, it’s disquieting that officials and most politicians rebuffed reasonable questions over the policy’s implementation and fairness. There may have been an understandable fear of being seen to pander to the “soft on drugs” lobby.

Methamphetamine is indisputably a rapidly addictive drug. The behaviour it induces causes misery and injury, drives crime and creates poverty. It’s right and responsible that state and private landlords forbid its use in their properties. But the harm in focus here was not from usage, but from residual toxins.

Housing New Zealand (HNZ) cannot escape culpability for overkill, either. When tenants of many years’ blameless standing, including octogenarians, have been evicted and had their possessions confiscated and destroyed for deemed contamination, it’s clear that common sense and decency are missing in action.

Things must be put right. Most of the worst-affected victims were state-house tenants, low-income people who were tarred with the label of P-user and sometimes lumbered with thousands of dollars of debt to pay for the clean-up of a property they had played no part in contaminating. When they couldn’t pay, it was deducted from their benefits, which added to their misery. All this has made it hard and in some cases impossible for them to find new homes. Some were lucky to keep the clothes they stood up in.

HNZ has now formally apologised, and compensation is being considered – as it should be – for those evicted because of meth traces. But private landlords, too, acted on the shonky guidelines in good faith, forking out to decontaminate premises, as it turns out, unnecessarily. Shouldn’t they, too, be compensated? And their tenants?

It doesn’t aid public confidence that in the days after Gluckman’s bombshell report, misinformation and confusion between HNZ and the Government continued about whether tenants were still being pursued for decontamination costs.

In righting this appalling injustice, a vital proviso is that the Government must not be seen to be minimising the illegality or social menace of P use. Three state agencies have blunderingly used a sledgehammer to crack what was in all probability in most cases a mere nut. Yet the Government must redouble its efforts to channel P-users into rehabilitation and to educate the young, particularly, about the drug’s life-blighting scourge.

That HNZ may no longer evict people from houses with low-level meth traces should in no way be taken as New Zealand becoming permissive about drug use – least of all about P.

This editorial was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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