(Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyAugust 15, 2023

‘There’s no rehab’: Two tales of rural drug use, and the barriers to help

(Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Rural people who use drugs are a diverse group, but they face a lot of similar problems. Don Rowe investigates the barriers to seeking help experienced by users in isolated communities.

Small rural communities in New Zealand can sometimes feel like worlds of their own. The attitudes of the big cities don’t always track with opinions out in the regions. Day-to-day concerns in Murupara are very different to those in Mt Eden. And complex behaviours like drug use can create unique problems with difficult solutions. 

Isolation, poverty and a lack of care services mean users who run into trouble often struggle to find help, and lower numbers of police have implications for enforcement and community support. The drug of choice is different too: small rural towns like Ōpōtiki and Wairoa have the highest rate of methamphetamine use per person in the country, up to double the national average. 

Molly* grew up in West Auckland before moving to the Bay of Plenty, where she partied mainly in sheds and the occasional paddock. Sometimes a friend would have a “cool parent” who would let them drink inside. 

“At first it was just weed and bourbon, but the pills started coming in when I was 15 or 16,” she says. “It started with party pills that older siblings would buy but it moved into ecstasy pretty quickly after that. 

Let’s talk about drugs (Image: Tina Tiller)

“For a couple of years the quality of the pills seemed quite good, but then busts happened and the pills got quite nasty, smelling like chlorine and bleach. People turned against pills and you saw a lot more powder and various things masquerading as MDMA or just being sold as 2C-B. Powders were more trustworthy, supposedly.”

There was poor literacy around drugs, she says. In the city, there was a higher chance someone’s parents had used drugs and knew what to look out for. But in smaller rural towns, the drug of choice was a crate of beer, and there was no generational knowledge about harm potential.

“When meth came on the scene there wasn’t an older generation to give advice, just teenagers talking to each other. Nobody used Facebook or Snapchat. Young people in rural communities often aren’t reading the news either and their information mostly comes from each other. So there was no understanding of drug testing at all. 

“Because they weren’t touched in the same way by overdoses, these smaller communities have a false sense of security and basically they think they’re fine. A drug is a drug; if it gets me high, what’s the problem? If I’m laughing and giggling, it must be acid.”

Rural isolation meant that drug-driving was rife, she says. When there are no buses, taxis or parents to pick you up, users get behind the wheel, encouraged by the low chance of driving through a police checkpoint and fewer other drivers on the road. 

“You start to think, ‘The worst thing I can hit is a cow’, which obviously isn’t true.” 

Small rural communities also provide unique challenges when things go wrong. Word travels fast, and reputational problems quickly create big problems, Molly says.

“When meth became more prevalent, the stigma grew. If someone was using meth in a small town and everyone was talking about it, you didn’t want to be associated with them even if they’re your friends. Because then everyone in town thinks that you’re using meth too, and they’re not going to hire you on their farm, and you very quickly can become isolated. I associated with people who used meth and to some people there is still a black mark on my name in that town. And there’s not a lot of sympathy or help. What help could you even get to them? There’s no rehab.” 

(Image: Getty/Archi Banal)

A lack of comprehensive care in rural communities has long been recognised by academics. Geographic isolation, economies of scale, a lack of GPs and comparatively high levels of deprivation mean accessing rehabilitation and mental health support is difficult, particularly for Māori. Leslynn Jackson, project manager at Manaaki Tairāwhiti, says whānau face a wide range of obstacles in finding help when dealing with addiction.

“Accessing treatment out of the region comes with a huge cost, and I don’t mean financially. The cost of leaving your children behind if you don’t have a safe place for them to be cared for, the cost of moving out of your rental, the cost of not being available for shifts at work. There are a whole lot of reasons that people who want treatment can’t access it.”

Adding to these barriers is a lack of information about the availability of services, she says. Whānau living rurally don’t necessarily know what help is out there and struggle with their addictions in private. In other cases, services are siloed or culturally inappropriate.

Stigma towards drug use also affects Māori more than Pākehā, Molly says. Rural communities across New Zealand were decimated following the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 90s, and many whānau found their economic situation suddenly dire. Predominantly Pākehā farmers and landowners suffered less, and retained a level of wealth that insulated them from the harsher consequences of poverty like addiction. Whānau who deal with addiction can be ostracised and struggle to find employment.

“A Pākehā farmer in Galatea doesn’t want to employ a young Māori guy from Murupara because there are those horrible stereotypes around methamphetamine and getting ripped off. The farming world is so small and if you’re known as a drug user, everyone knows, and you can’t get employed. Now you’re on the dole, and all you have left to do is meth. People start doing whatever they have to do in order to get it. They steal loads of firewood and sell it in town, get a bag, and everyone knows who did it and why. Once you’re shunned, you’re shunned.” 

Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller/The Spinoff

Rural addicts, Molly says, become increasingly isolated. There’s not a lot to do besides hunting and fishing, and boredom itself can create an aggravating factor in usage. 

“The boredom can get quite extreme. It contributes a lot to the mental health crisis that these communities experience. It also means that when you’re just trying to get a buzz, it doesn’t matter so much what the drug is, which is a dangerous place to be.”

Divides around race and class are common factors in attitudes to drug use in the rest of the country. Where a business analyst who snorts cocaine in the Viaduct just likes to party, the same behaviour in Kawerau is seen as delinquency. Sarah* grew up in Nelson and went to university in the North Island before living rurally to take up vineyard work. There were the usual party drugs at uni, and weed, booze and MDMA.

“I was never concerned,” she says. “It wasn’t until people started to bring meth to parties later on that I really got spooked. I knew we had a problem in New Zealand but I’d never known anybody who had ever taken it. But the way people think about drugs here is different.

“There are a lot of rich vineyard owners with kids in their 20s where I am, and there is a certain level of privilege. A large part of my job is driving tractors and operating machinery and using drugs is not something you’d like your boss to know about, but it’s an open secret and you know that if the company tested workers you’d lose half of your operators. It’s pushed under the rug.”

Now living and working near Blenheim, Sarah says people would be shocked at the amount of drugs moving through the “gateway between North and South”. Drugs like cocaine and MDMA flow outwards from the port, as well as methamphetamine and LSD. They’re all popular, but being known as a user has vastly different consequences.

“Drugs like cocaine don’t have the same stigma as methamphetamine. If your boss finds out you’re smoking weed or using cocaine it’s not going to be such a big deal as if you are smoking meth, even though there are a lot of real estate agents and other professionals who use methamphetamine. 

“Then if you don’t have a job, you’re more likely to get hooked. And if you can’t afford rehab or you don’t have access to rehab, it’s much more difficult to escape the lifestyle.”

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