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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Harry - Like a P pipe in the dark?


Harry lit up the underbelly of the "P" or methamphetamine trade in Auckland like a "P" pipe in the dark. Brightly illuminating the trials police and criminals face in their daily war with each other but obscuring the wider social reality in which the pipe gets lit.

Through six episodes, this TV3 series led us up the drug labyrinth from street dealers through cooks and importers as it wound its way around Auckland's suburban streetscapes.

The critics didn't like him but Oscar Kightley was perfect as the lead detective (Harry Angelsea) and Sam Neill in his role as Kightley's boss gave the show a solid feel. The acting throughout was superb as was the tempo of the main storyline unfolding, as most crime shows do, through autopsys and apprehensions.

By the end of the series however one could sense something missing. Unlike the American drug crime show The Wire, TV3's Harry never came close to dealing with the political economy of the meth trade.

There was an early warning of the superficiality of the show when Angelsea comforted the working-class Samoan parents of a young, meth fueled, armed robber with the words, "Sometimes it doesn't matter what you do they end up mixing with the wrong crowd."

Instead of attempting to examine the decline of manufacturing and heavy industry and the rise of unemployment in South Auckland's suburbs which has made it an easy recruiting ground for  narco-employment in gangs or the problems with the struggling school system Harry made it look like people fell into the meth trade by pure chance.

Indeed the political economy of meth in Auckland was at no point engaged with and Harry  never really showed us the end users of P and the damage it was doing to our communities. This damage is serious. Earlier this year a small Far North community was torn apart by whanau becoming involved in the meth trade. Indeed the psycho-social factors driving people to meth use, such as increasing workloads and short deadlines or even post-traumatic stress disorder, as was the case for one now infamous user were never delved into. Indeed the absence of the "P" scene being part of the story ended up being the missing link between a good and a great show.

This meant the show never provoked any serious reflection in the audience on how to tackle the meth trade. In contrast in Season Three of The Wire producer and drug reform advocate David Simon explored the possibility of de facto legalising the drug trade in a few blocks of Baltimore known as Hamsterdam.

This is the stuff New Zealand desperately needs on television. Indepth social commentary and provocative solutions being proposed.

The latest Government report on meth shows that the state's strategy to tackle the meth trade is not just the sort of criminal investigative policing we were exposed to on Harry but also increased help for meth addicts. This appears to be working with the number of New Zealanders who have tried meth in the last twelve months having more than halved between 2008 and 2012. Yet sadly in the last half of 2012, 34% of frequent meth users reported they sought help but did not receive it and meth related hospital admissions continue to increase.



It would have been fantastic to have seen the self-organisation of communities who are fighting meth dramatised on our screens. Like the work of iwi raising awareness about the damage meth does, or the mahi of old school gang members working within gangs to stop the trade, or Murupara's innovative fight to make it "P" free.

It would have been interesting to have seen the environmental effects of the meth trade shown as well. Toxic waste bring poured into stormwater drains, the effect on buildings used as labs and the fires and explosions that often result.

Harry could have easily pulled this side of the meth story into the plot; maybe by leaving out some of the more psycho-dramatic stuff about Angelsea and his daughter.

In fact despite being enjoyable drama, Harry would have left viewers with the impression that savvy policing is responsible for winning the war on drugs when the reality is starkly different. Treating users like patients and not criminals is key to lowering demand.

As NZ Drug Foundation boss Ross Bell said last month,
What the last three years has shown us is that investing in addiction treatment and trying to sign post these people to get help brings some real benefit. 
The big challenge now is, how do we get those 25,000 the right support so they can recover from that dependency? 
We need to be put new resources into treating our drug problem as a health issue.
 -Omar, SA

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