Methamphetamine Politics and Standards in New Zealand

Methamphetamine Politics and Standards in New Zealand

Standard New Zealand Makes a Policy Decision Which Could Threaten the Independence of the Standards Development Process.

Author – Miles Stratford, Meth Solutions, ALGA Newsletter August 2019

When setting a technical standard against which the performance of services can be measured, this typically involves a range of parties, many who are expert or experienced in the field on which the standard is focused. It is also generally accepted, that the standard itself will be free from political interference.

Indeed, in New Zealand, Section 7 (2) (a) of the Standards and Accreditation Act 2015, enshrines at law, the requirement that the NZ Standards Executive must act independently. It is particularly important that standards are free from political influence. If they are not, there is a risk that political ideology influences the subject of the standard, breaching requirements at law.

Things are changing in New Zealand

In May of 2019, Standards New Zealand advised through its website that Standards New Zealand will now seek the involvement of politically appointed scientists when developing new standards or revising existing standards, which include new or unsettled science.

The implications of this policy shift are profound. It is a decision which threatens the independence of the standards process. It significantly increases the risk of political interference and may breach the law.

Why the change?

The catalyst for this policy change, is the assertion by the Minister for Housing in December 2017, that NZS8510:2017 Testing and decontamination of methamphetamine contaminated properties, was not fit for purpose. This assertion was supported by a report prepared by the office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (PMCSA Meth Report), that was released in May 2018.

The report was commissioned and paid for by the Minister for Housing. None of the report’s authors were specialist environmental toxicologists, and none had any expertise in the area of methamphetamine contamination and decontamination.

Impact of the PMCSA Report

The fallout from the release of the PMCSA Meth Report and the media response that followed was significant:

  • Businesses operating in the environmental testing space were vilified and many shut down
  • Staff lost jobs
  • Investments made in capital equipment were placed at risk
  • People who on the balance of probabilities were responsible for damage to property caused by illegal activity were financially compensated; and
  • An independent review of the development of NZS8510 was commissioned.

NZS8510 informed by independent science

Lost in this public blood-letting, was the fact that NZS8510 was informed by independent science. The Standards Committee was presented with a report from the Ministry of Health, which was undertaken by US experts in environmental toxicology. These scientists were commissioned to do the work by ESR. The Standards Committee was advised that ESR chose to use overseas toxicologists because of:

the lack of suitably qualified environmental toxicologists in New Zealand; and the highly polemic nature of the debate in New Zealand made it more challenging to ensure the independence of the scientific advice provided.

ESR continues to stand by the scientific advice it provided to the Ministry of Health. This is the key independent scientific advice that underpins NZS8510.

NZS8510 free from improper influence

An independent review of the development of NZS8510 by Wellington Barrister Peter Castle was released in August 2018. It found the Standard NZS8510, was not improperly influenced by any particular views or interests of the Standards Development Committee and with one exception regarding disclosure of personal interests, had been developed in accordance with the Standards and Accreditation Act 2015. This exception did not affect the outcome.

Precedence given to the PMCSA Meth Report

The authors of the PMCSA Meth Report are on record as saying that the report was never meant to be the basis of a new standard. Yet it is being treated as a de facto standard by a range of government institutions.

The PMCSA Meth Report was used to support immediate change in meth-related policy by Housing New Zealand. Houses that would have required decontamination had the recommendations of NZS8510 applied, were freed up with no money spent, saving the government millions of dollars.

Within days of release, the Real Estate Authority adopted a policy around disclosure of meth contamination, which saw the levels in the PMCSA Meth Report being adopted. There is no recorded engagement with the Ministry of Health or ESR around this decision.

Some months later, in October 2018, the Tenancy Tribunal adopted the levels included in the PMCSA Meth Report as the determinant of damage. These levels are used to determine the accountability of people involved with meth-related behavior.

What do the independent scientists say?

Specialist environmental toxicologists advise that the acceptable contamination levels which are included in the PMCSA Meth Report cannot be replicated using standard risk assessment methodology. There is concern.

Lessons to be learned – action required

Time will tell what levels of meth residues in property are actually acceptable when it comes to human habitation.

What the development and effective undermining of NZS8510 demonstrates, is that political influence of the standards process is possible. And this policy decision by Standards NZ will make it far easier for that influence to be exerted, regardless of the subject of the standard being developed or updated.

We should all be concerned. An urgent and independent review of this decision by Standards New Zealand is required.

Author – Miles Stratford, Meth Solutions, ALGA Newsletter August 2019

The information and views set out in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ALGA or the Board of Directors. Readers are advised to do their own research on the information in this article.