In Napier’s poorest suburb, empty lots sprawl where state housing once sat, unemployment dominates, and, each evening, with few street lamps around, ‘The Nui’ falls into darkness and synthetic cannabis joints are lit. By Anusha Bradley of RNZ.
Children as young as 11 are hooked on synthetic cannabis in the Napier suburb of Maraenui, in what is being described as an epidemic.
It’s hard to find anyone unaffected by the drug there – they are either hooked, have been hooked or know someone who is.
While the police blame the Mongrel Mob, locals say it’s just ordinary people making and selling the drug to feed their own addiction, or doing it to survive the unemployment, poverty and desperation shared by many in the suburb.
On a cold winter’s day outside the Maraenui shops, groups of people gather and wait. They’re waiting for the synnie house round the corner to open.
Leilani*, used to join them. But not anymore. Not since Oranga Tamariki took her two children away.
“They [Oranga Tamariki] turned up one day and I was high as a kite.
“The day my babies got taken was the day I started thinking stupid, like I wanted to commit suicide. I think that’s why a lot of our community resorts to this drug, because it blocks out all the pain.”
She tries to keep busy by going on long walks, in attempt to stop herself from turning to the drug.
“My intake is really low now. I used to be really bad where every time I woke up I needed a hit. I could not sleep unless I had it. If I don’t, I’m up all night.”
Leilani’s been to rehab, but says it’s hard to give up the drug because it’s everywhere – and a bag is cheap.
“Honestly, if you have $20 you can just walk down the road and get some, it’s that easy. I know about four, five shops around here,” she says waving her hand around.
On the surface, Maraenui is a typical working class suburb, with rows of state homes on nearly every street, tidy front lawns and neatly mown berms.
It has a strong and loyal community, and many families have lived here for four or five generations.
But poverty, homelessness and gang affiliation is high. The unemployment rate is 20 percent – three times that of Napier, and four times the national rate. The Mongrel Mob Aotearoa’s Napier chapter’s headquarters is here, its gang pad overlooks a children’s playground in the heart of the suburb.
Despite Hawke’s Bay having the second highest rate of methamphetamine use in the country, the drug of choice in Maraenui is synthetics.
“It’s just blown up. Every second person here is either using it, has used it, or is affected in some way,” says community advocate and Māori warden Minnie Ratima, who has lived in Maraenui all her life and helps people with housing and mental health issues.
Like many here, Ratima has family members who got hooked on the drug when it was still a legal high. When it was banned in 2014, locals just started making it themselves.
She says its use soared after nearly 100 state homes were torn down in 2016, leaving many homeless and desperate.
“The youngest I know of was 11 when he started using. He’s 15 now and is still chasing it. He hasn’t really had a childhood.”
Maraenui community constable Hoki Ward grew up in this suburb and he’s now dedicated his role to stopping the drug. He spends most of his time on prevention and education and getting addicts and their families the help they need.
“Around here everyone is using it, it’s like drinking or cigarettes. You’re looking at all sorts of age groups as well, the koros, the nannies … to your parents, to the young parents and to the kids … it’s sad.”
But he says the community also needs to “step up” and take a stronger stance against the sellers.
Three of Marcia Crawford’s children are addicted to synthetics, so she looks after three of her grandchildren.
“Their parents chose synthetics over them. They had money for synthetics but no money for bread or anything. They couldn’t even get out of bed and take them to school.”
Last Christmas, Marcia’s daughter snuck into her house and stole all the presents to swap for drugs at the synthetics shop.
“I marched right over to the synnie shop and demanded them back. But they only gave me one.”
Despite her addiction, Leilani doesn’t blame the sellers.
“These shops, they do have families and they do what they do to support their families. A lot of people here if they had jobs, wouldn’t be so hooked on synthetics.”
After a free walk-in addiction clinic was closed down last year, Leilani says she has nowhere else to turn for help.
The police believe most, if not all, synthetic cannabis in Napier and Hastings is now being made in Maraenui. The suburb is feeding addiction and antisocial behaviour amongst the most vulnerable and homeless in Napier’s city centre, they say.
Major Keelan and his partner Awhi spend most days begging on the streets of Napier. It used to fund Keelan’s $400 a day synthetic habit. But the couple are trying to quit the drug, after they too lost their daughter because of their addiction.
“This is the hardest drug to give up. Synthetics takes your mind off eating, drinking… It takes you away from the real world,” says Keelan.
The police say they’re doing what they can to stop sellers, but even if they do close down an illegal shop, another soon pops up.
“We’re doing what we can….We’re never going to be able to arrest our way out of these situations. Without the customer base this problem wouldn’t exist,” Hawke’s Bay CIB head Detective Senior Sergeant Brent Greville says.
At least three deaths have been linked to the drug in the past year, including the death of a 55-year-old man just two weeks ago.
*Not her real name
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