Methamphetamine

Updated: 14 November 2013

What's Important To Us

The illegal manufacture and use of the drug methamphetamine (also known as P) is a significant contemporary social issue in New Zealand. It is important that we understand how this drug can pose a serious risk to children and young people, their parents/caregivers and unborn infants so that appropriate interventions can be put into place.

This key information discusses methamphetamine or 'P' including its side effects for both adults and children and young people who are using this drug, how it is manufactured, and how its use can affect an unborn child and the ability to care for a child or young person. 

It should be read in conjunction with the New Zealand Police and Oranga Tamariki Joint Standard Operating Procedures for Children and Young Persons in Clandestine Laboratories.

These procedures are the agreed working arrangements between the New Zealand Police and Oranga Tamariki when children and young people are removed from a suspected P lab. These procedures detail the specific roles and responsibilities of each agency.

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What is methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant that is produced and sold illegally in the form of pills, capsules, powder and crystals. Methamphetamine is most commonly known in New Zealand as 'P'. It is also referred to as 'Pure', 'Speed', 'Ice', 'Crystal', 'Burn' and 'Meth'.

The side effects of methamphetamine use can include reduced appetite, sleeplessness, nervousness, irritability, paranoia, severe depression and violent behaviour.

Methamphetamine affects users differently depending on the route of administration (smoking, inhalation, injection or ingestion), dosage (amount taken), personality characteristics of the user, and the mood of the individual at the time of use.

How is methamphetamine manufactured?

The Police report a growing rate of methamphetamine manufacture and are increasingly detecting clandestine laboratories (labs). Methamphetamine is manufactured with readily available and highly dangerous materials and equipment. The chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine can pose a serious health hazard for anyone exposed to them.

People living in methamphetamine labs are at risk of inhalation, skin absorption and ingestion of harmful chemicals. People in these environments may also be injured by direct contact with caustic materials used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.

Possible indicators of a methamphetamine lab presence are:

  • unusual, strong odours (cat urine, ammonia, acetone, etc)
  • residences with unusual security precautions (e.g. windows blacked out)
  • frequent activity at unusual times
  • an absence of light bulbs in the house (these can be used to inhale methamphetamine)
  • an excessive amount of:
    - clear glass containers brought into the home
    - empty packaging of any of the identified ingredients used to make methamphetamine
    - chemistry equipment.

If a staff member suspects the presence of a methamphetamine lab, they should steer clear of the area and alert the Police. If a staff member is already in the building, they should leave immediately. A social worker suspecting exposure to toxic chemicals should change clothes and shower as soon as possible. They should also seek medical advice and, if necessary, treatment.

Take all reasonable attempts to ensure the safety of any children or young people present.

How does methamphetamine use affect the care of a child or young person?

While methamphetamine use isn't an automatic indicator of unsuitability to care for a child or young person, it does affect a parent/caregiver's ability on different levels. Low-intensity users can generally still function but may experience mood swings. When high, users can feel 'good', be alert, and have a high level of physical activity.

Methamphetamine users may experience increasing feelings of depression, lethargy and loss of energy when 'coming down' after use. These symptoms can impair the user's interest in caring for their children, depriving them of basic physical and emotional needs. This period can last for months during which there is a high probability of substance re-use and an increased need for sleep.

Methamphetamine users may also consume other drugs or alcohol while under the influence, increasing risk to themselves and those close to them. Extreme reactions (including physical violence) to otherwise innocent stimuli are more common during periods of multi-substance use.

Long-term, chronic methamphetamine abuse can lead to psychotic behaviour, characterised by intense paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and extreme violence.

Methamphetamine use is most likely to exacerbate pre-existing behavioural traits (i.e. people with a history of violence are likely to exhibit extreme violence after heavy methamphetamine use).

How does methamphetamine use affect pregnancy?

Studies are currently underway investigating the impact of a pregnant woman's methamphetamine use on her foetus. Research suggests that methamphetamine use during pregnancy increases the risk of:

  • reduced foetal growth
  • placental abruption (separation of the placenta from the wall of the uterus, potentially life threatening for mother and baby)
  • miscarriage
  • newborn withdrawal symptoms.

How are children and young people affected by the use of methamphetamine?

As with adults, a wide range of factors contribute to determining how methamphetamine use will affect children and young people. Behaviour resulting from use does not generally differ between adults and young people. However, young people are usually more impulsive, increasing the likelihood of risk-taking behaviour as a result of methamphetamine use.

If a social worker suspects methamphetamine use by a child or young person, this should be fully explored when completing a Tuituia assessment.

Children and young people may be involved in other types of harmful activity (e.g. burglary, sex work, criminal associations) in order to fund their drug use. International statistics indicate that young people using methamphetamine are likely to use alcohol and other drugs in combination. The combination of methamphetamine and other substances is a known 'high risk' indicator.

Further information about methamphetamine is available from local alcohol and drug services and the NZ Drug Foundation.