The suburb swallowed by synthetics

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.

Down at the Maraenui shops on a Monday evening, a boy leaves the fish and chip store carrying a steaming parcel, balances it on his handlebars and rides off into the winter night. A couple of kids in rugby uniforms drag baskets of clothes from a van to the laundromat, the metal studs of their boots grating on the concrete. Over at the dairy, a Mongrel Mob member emerges with a bottle of coke and swaggers past two young men pushing a car down the road. A group of people mill around the ATM.

A grinning young man stands outside the bakery wanting to talk. “I just got out of jail today,” he slurs. He was inside for three months for stealing to pay for synthetic cannabis. It’s bitterly cold and he’s only wearing a T-shirt, track pants, and a pair of sports socks under his plastic slip-on sandals. He looks no more than 18 and is painfully thin. “I was using $180 of the stuff a day. It wasn’t good.” He’s not using it anymore, he says, before losing his trail of thought and wandering off.

An older man, hood up, sits on a bench outside the dairy. He still smokes synthetics. “It’s everywhere. I can handle it though, others can’t,” he says, nodding towards a man coming out of the Golden Chance gaming lounge. “He’s not in good shape. He can’t smoke alone cos he has seizures.” Some local kids died after smoking synthetics last year, he says. He can’t remember names. “The government’s to blame. They put it on our shelves in the first place, then they took it away.”

He walks away towards the growing line of people at the ATM. Their cash in hand, some nip into the Price Cutter next door, some head to the Four Square at the other end of the shops, some line up at the vaping shop. A few join the trail of people making their way to the nearest synthetics “shop” around the corner, down a dark street. Customers are guided by a lit window where tinnies of synthetic cannabis are quickly passed out.

Walking the streets of ‘The Nui,’ as Napier’s poorest suburb is affectionately called by locals, you struggle to find anyone unaffected by synthetic cannabis — they are either hooked, have been hooked or know someone who has been hooked.

Locals say people are making and selling the drug to escape their daily lives. More than half of the suburb’s households receive a government benefit, according to the 2013 Census. Unemployment is at 20 percent, nearly three times that of Napier, and more than four times the national rate. Affordable housing is hard to find — the suburb has the fastest rising house prices in Hawke’s Bay — and the neighbourhood is without proper street lighting so, come nightfall, it is swallowed by darkness.

They don’t blame the Mongrel Mob, which has a strong presence in the community. Its members are their brothers, sons, fathers, and mates. The gang has publicly taken a stance against the drug, threatening to beat up or move on users who smoke in public. But the police aren’t buying it. The gangs are certainly involved in some way, even if it’s because they’re taking a cut of sales from any “shops” on their patch, they say.

No one is debating the hold synthetic cannabis, known as “synnies”, has over the suburb, or that the problem is seeping out to surrounding neighbourhoods. 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.

Maraenui community advocate Minnie Ratima says every second person in the suburb is using synthetics. "The youngest I know of was 11 when he started using. He’s 15 now and is still chasing it."

Maraenui community advocate Minnie Ratima says every second person in the suburb is using synthetics. "The youngest I know of was 11 when he started using. He’s 15 now and is still chasing it."

Minnie Ratima opens the curtain and inspects the window for condensation. The community advocate is helping a prospective tenant, Gaylene, check out a Housing New Zealand (HNZ) property she’s been offered.

It’s one of 269 HNZ properties still standing in Maraenui. A few years ago 33 houses containing 96 units were demolished because they were an earthquake risk or were no longer fit to live in. As the buildings came down, homelessness and synthetics use among the 3000 locals, half of whom are Māori, went up, Ratima says. “It’s just blown up. Every second person here is either using it, has used it, or is affected in some way. Everyone of all ages. 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.”

She also knows a man close to retirement who was hooked, but getting a job he loves has helped him get off the drug, she says. “When they are working they feel better about themselves. But we need more than seasonal orchard work. Better jobs and better wages… That’s what our people need.”

Ratima, who works tirelessly to help people with housing, addictions and mental health issues, leads Gaylene into the kitchen and they discuss whether the home is suitable for her sick, elderly husband. Although neat and tidy, the only heating source is a fireplace in the lounge. Gaylene is currently living in a motel and is desperate to leave, but she feels the house will be too cold for her husband. Gaylene pokes her head into the bathroom and worries she won’t be able to lift him into the high-sided bath.

Housing New Zealand says everyone affected by the evictions a few years ago was relocated to new homes in the area or to other suburbs or towns. Ratima rolls her eyes when she hears that. “Everyone was affected. People were moved out, and this emptied out the schools and shops. It was like a deliberate move to break up Maraenui.”

But Ratima has lived here all her life — she was born in a house across the road from the shops — and knows she can’t solely blame HNZ for the suburb’s state. Synthetics started to take over the town in the early 2000s. The drug was legal then as well as cheap and easy to get at the local shops.

She joined the “Nanny Brigade” holding protests outside the two Maraenui shops that sold synthetics. They managed to get some of the drugs removed from the shelves but it wasn’t enough. By the time the government finally banned the drug in 2014, it was too late: synthetics had a grip on Maraenui, and if users had to buy it on the black market instead of at the shops, they would.


It’s 11am and Major Keelan and his partner Awhi sit begging on the damp pavement outside the Marewa shops in suburban Napier. “We’re doing really well. Normally at this time we would have had about five bags and been wasted as,” Awhi says.

Keelan used to have a $400-a-day synthetics habit but the couple are trying to quit the drug. He’s been to rehab and is now down to one $20 bag a day. “This is the hardest drug to give up. Synthetics takes your mind off eating, drinking… It takes you away from the real world.”

The real world is grim. Keelan’s past is a tangle of foster homes, prison and gangs, and the pair recently lost custody of their 2-year-old daughter because of synthetics. Now they use the drug to help them cope with the loss.

“There’s a certain taste … it lingers in the back of your throat. You crave it,” Awhi says.

“With this stuff, once you have your first hit it stays there and you want more and more and more. Unless you’ve got a strong mind.”

They live a few streets from Maraenui, in Marewa, after landing a state home last year. Keelan was born and raised in Maraenui but even though the suburb is a stone’s throw away, he avoids it. “It wasn’t a nice place for me.” He says he read in his file that as a baby his arm was broken and he was left on the street to die.

But if the police have it right, Maraenui still has a grip on Keelan. The synthetics he smokes — the synthetics controlling his life — will be from the suburb.

Leilani* sits outside The Pie Man in Maraenui taking tiny sips of her takeaway coffee.

A couple of people hang around the shops, soaking up the morning sun. Leilani knows them well. She used to hang out with them, filling in the hours until the synnie shop opened.

She doesn’t join them anymore. She’s been to rehab and is trying to give up synthetics after Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children, took her kids. “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.”

She wraps her scarf tighter against the wind. She has a barking cough. Her voice cracks as she explains how she lost her children. “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 wants to get clean, find a job and get her kids back, but as an overstayer from Samoa she can’t work until her visa is sorted, and while she waits for the paperwork, temptation to smoke is everywhere. “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.

She started using synthetics because it made her feel better. “Because every time I look[ed] at my kids I feel bad I can’t put bread and butter on the table for them. We need more employment. A lot of people here, if they had jobs they wouldn’t be so hooked on synthetics.”

With no work and her children gone, she spends hours each day walking, trying to tire herself out so she can sleep without going to the synnie shop for a fix. Her walks take her past rows of uniform state homes, with tidy front gardens and neatly mown berms, and through the large green open spaces dotted throughout the suburb — the empty lots that were once filled with social housing. She used to head to a drop-in addiction clinic in Maraenui, but it closed down last year.


Synthetic cannabis is up to 70 times more potent than natural cannabis. The active ingredient is a synthetic cannabinoid that mimics the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC —  the chemical in cannabis that makes people high — but is more toxic and dangerous.

The drug has killed between 40 to 45 people in New Zealand in the past year, up from two deaths over the previous five years.

It was first introduced in New Zealand as a “legal high” about 13 years ago and sold by dairies and other shops. After it was banned in 2014, production went underground.

The active ingredient is bought on the dark web as a powder or liquid and smuggled into the country. It is sprayed on plant material or dried herbs and users then smoke it. Widespread rumours that home cooks often use rat poison or fly spray in the making of the drug have been disproved by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research..

Smoking synthetic cannabis can put users into a zombie-like state, but it can also cause a fast or irregular heartbeat, racing thoughts, dizziness, hallucinations and aggression.

Dr Paul Quigley, from Capital and Coast District Health Board, is the country's leading medical expert on synthetic cannabis. He says users rarely seek help as they’re often vulnerable, homeless or have other drug and health issues. “People just aren’t interested in help, they don’t see it as a problem. It just helps their pain,” he says.

That may explain why the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board says it helps far more people with methamphetamine and alcohol problems, and its residential rehabilitation clinic, Springhill Treatment Centre in Napier, currently has no waiting list.

Marcia Crawford sighs and sinks into a chair in the corner of the cavernous whare kai at Pukemokimoki Marae as she talks about how her children are addicted to synthetics.

She is a kaitiaki of the marae, on the outskirts of Maraenui, where the local rugby club and park back on to farmland that stretches out to the coast. Built 10 years ago after more than half a century of planning, the marae is billed as a meeting place for all cultures. It holds a special place in Crawford’s heart, but even here reminders of the synthetics scourge reach her.

While showing a group of school children around the marae’s gardens recently, she came across a user passed out in the gardens. She often finds people comatose in their cars outside the marae early in the morning. “I grew up here … and we’ve had bad things before, but this is the worst.”

“Their parents chose synthetics over them."

Three of her nine children are addicted to synthetics, which means she now cares for 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.”

She looks at her grandson who’s sitting nearby, staring intently at a phone. Her long pauses are punctuated by loud pings as the boy scores points on a game he’s playing. “His mother is still on it. His father was on it, but he just got caught three months ago for burglary and is now in prison.”

Last Christmas, Crawford’s daughter snuck into her house while she was out, stole all the presents and swapped them at the synthetics shop for drugs. “I marched right over to the synnie shop and demanded them back. But they only gave me one.”

Crawford’s daughter continues to steal from her. “It could be your garden hose, it could be the shoes on your doorstep — they’re worth $5 at the synthetics shop.”

Her son once attacked her as he was choking on his own vomit. “I’ve gone to the washhouse where the other one has vomited in my washing machine, on my blankets … they have a smoke and they bring up everything and do the seizure act. And they wake up like nothing has happened and ask, ‘Have you got a dollar?”

She doesn’t understand how her children fell so far. “They were really good at sports and were into kapa haka.”

Her daughter tried rehab but it didn’t work. “I found out she was going just to get the pills… She was selling them for top dollar and then going to buy synthetics.” She sent her daughter up north to live with a relative and after two months she came back clean. “But then she got back on it, because it’s just there.”

In her work with the Māori Women’s Welfare League, she often sees young mums who are hooked on synthetics. “It’s cheaper than marijuana. You can get a $10 bag, whereas marijuana costs $20.”

She wonders why the police don’t close all the synthetics shops down. “We’ve been left alone to deal with it ourselves.”

Constable Hoki Ward in front of his childhood home in Maraenui.

Constable Hoki Ward in front of his childhood home in Maraenui.

All Hoki Ward ever wanted to be was a gangster. Growing up in Maraenui, that’s what he knew.

Today he swings his police car into Bledisloe Street, and heads towards the community police station in the shopping centre.

Ward has been a community constable in Maraenui for the last five years and his mission is to stamp out synthetics. It’s a personal mission too. His cousin’s death is believed to be linked to the drug and he has other family members who have been, or still are, addicted. “It’s an epidemic to be honest... It’s destroying this community.”

He’s seen the suburb change for the worse over the past 30 years. In its heyday the town centre boasted several bakeries, a New World, a butcher, fruit and vegetable shops, and a bank. Then in the 1980s the meatworks closed down, and the shops followed. The bank was robbed and it shut down too.

Still, for all its hardships, Maraenui is a close-knit and loyal community. Ask a local how long they’ve lived here and the answer is usually in the double digits, with many families now in their fourth or fifth generation, Ward says.

He eases the car down Percy Spiller Ave and stops by an empty lot. He points out a two-story former state house overlooking the children’s playground at the edge of the park. It’s the headquarters of the Napier chapter of the Mongrel Mob Aotearoa. A giant billboard with the gang’s logo is proudly displayed on one side of the house. Smaller chapters from Porirua and Wairoa also have strongholds in Maraenui.

Many of Ward’s friends and classmates were from Mongrel Mob families and some of his relatives are now in the gang. He would have followed them down that path if it were not for a chance meeting with a Māori policeman when he was about 10. “He made a bit of an impression on me because he was brown. I thought, ‘What's he doing in the police?’ When I was a kid there was none of that… You'd see the cops drive past and then grab your uncle, or your mates, or chase you down the road.”

He’d like to see tougher penalties for those who make and sell synthetics and more help for users. But he believes the Maraenui community also needs to take a stand against manufacturers and dealers. “If it continues like this there’s going to be so much harm and heartache.”


There are at least 11 drug “shops” in Maraenui. Five sell synthetics, four sell methamphetamine, and two sell cannabis. Hawke’s Bay police have made 41 seizures of synthetics over the past 18 months, but Criminal Investigation Branch head Detective Senior Sergeant Brent Greville says they were “mostly small amounts”.

Police target properties if there is enough information and evidence to suggest synthetic cannabis is being made or sold there, he says. “One of them [in Maraenui], we’ve been back at least four times in the last couple of years trying to close them down … and sometimes we catch them with product and sometimes we don’t.”

Sometimes police shut a shop down, but another always pop ups, Greville says. Police are “doing what they can” but the demand for the drug also needs to be addressed. “Without a customer base these dealers wouldn’t exist.”

Besides, there are other drugs to worry about — methamphetamine is a much bigger problem in the Hawke’s Bay than synthetics, Greville says. Police can also put away methamphetamine suppliers for longer as making and dealing synthetics carries a lower penalty than supplying methamphetamine or even natural cannabis.  A private members bill put forward by National MP Simeon Brown is currently before Parliament, though. It proposes giving police stronger powers to tackle synthetics, increasing the maximum jail term from two years to eight.

Experts have blamed increased demand for synthetics on the government’s 2014 ban. When the drug went underground it became cheaper and more potent. A Massey University study found the overall availability of synthetic cannabis fell dramatically between 2013 and 2016, but the strength of what was bought over that period increased. Following the ban, more than half of drug users bought it from a drug dealer, gang member or gang associate.

Synthetics expert Dr Paul Quigley says his research suggests that people who smoke synthetic cannabis don’t actually like it but they use it because it is easier to find and cheaper than natural cannabis, which is also much less potent and less addictive. “I often wonder what would have happened if legal synthetics had not been banned? What would happen if natural cannabis was more available?”

Tracey Benson sits at the desk in her office eating her lunch. She’s a team leader at the What Ever It Takes residential drug rehabilitation centre neighbouring Onekawa. The Maraenui native was a methamphetamine addict before getting clean in jail and turning her life around.

Some of her family members are addicted to synthetics but she feels powerless to help them. “It sucks the soul out of them. They’ve become completely different people. From my own personal experience, the only way off it has been prison for my loved ones. Because they just don’t want help.”

Last year, Benson and a group of colleagues ran a free walk-in addiction centre each Saturday at Maraenui Community House. “It was really popular. But also we got people coming from all over Napier.”

“I feel like our community is one that’s been forgotten about because it’s Maraenui."

But toward the end of the year the community centre was taken away to make room for a new medical clinic and the walk-in centre had to close. “Some were extremely upset, because there wasn’t anywhere local for them to go.”

Maraenui needs a walk-in addiction clinic operating five days a week, she says. It’s not like there’s nowhere to put one, with so many empty lots where state houses once stood. But it’s hard to get funding when the community already suffers from a chronic lack of resources, she says. “I feel like our community is one that’s been forgotten about because it’s Maraenui. And that’s hurtful because it’s a loving community. There’s good people here doing good things.”

Napier City Council has set aside $2.1 million to investigate building a new community space, but work won’t start until 2020.

Once a week Genesis Keefe, a teacher-aide from Maraenui Bilingual School, fills up a minivan with kids and drives them to a park along Napier’s Marine Parade so they can practice basketball on the brand new public court.

On an overcast afternoon, the kids tumble excitedly out of the van and start shooting hoops, scaring off a couple of young men practising their jump shots.

Rain clouds are forming. “When it rains, we have nowhere to go,” Keefe says. She’d like to see more investment in children and whanau in Maraenui, especially for the kids who are struggling at home or have nowhere safe to go. “We got no community centre, no youth programmes, no drug intervention programmes. We’ve got nothing.”

She’d like to see a rec centre built, not only so the kids could practice basketball but so they had a place to gather. “We have plenty of empty sections that could be utilised. But they’re still empty.”

She sees just how hard a life some of the kids have. “We have kids that come to me and say, ‘My mum’s a crack head, my mum’s a synnie head … we’ve got no food. They’ve got all this on their shoulders so when they come to school, they’re not happy, and they’re hungry.”

She often brings the kids home with her, to give them a break from their own homes. “I know what it’s like being brought up in a hard environment. I was brought up with gangs … and got it hard. The same shit is happening, but it’s 2018. This cycle’s not going to break if nobody steps to the table.”

Belinda Tamaki operates the Koha Shed on one of Housing New Zealand’s empty lots.

Belinda Tamaki operates the Koha Shed on one of Housing New Zealand’s empty lots.

One of Maraenui’s empty lots is being put to good use. Across the road from the shops sits a brightly painted shipping container, the Koha Shed. Its sides are splayed open to reveal rows of clothes hanging neatly inside. Household items and books are displayed on shelves.

Belinda Tamaki beams as people drop off bags of donated goods. Others sift through the racks. Anyone can take whatever they want for free.

A little boy comes in and picks up a toy. “Why aren’t you at school today bubs?” Tamaki asks kindly. The boy looks up. “I haven’t got any lunch things today,” he says matter-of-factly.

Tamaki ushers him to the children’s corner and carries on with her work.

She took over the running of the Koha Shed a few weeks ago, cleaning up the area, which had become a dumping ground for rubbish. Housing New Zealand lets her use the space as long as it’s kept tidy.

She organised a working bee and the community came and cleaned, painted and planted. The Koha Shed is now open six mornings a week providing people from all over Napier with a place to meet, talk and shop. Tamaki hopes vegetable gardens out front will eventually feed them as well.

As night brightens into morning at the Maraenui shops, mums and grannies push prams to the playground and children bounce on dirty mattresses on one of the empty lots.

Some people sit in their cars, others gather on park benches, killing time, waiting for jobs, waiting for homes, waiting for help.

Leilani is nowhere to be seen. She’s given up walking, a friend says. She’s back smoking synthetics.

*Not her real name.

Reporting by Anusha Bradley

Edited by Paloma Migone

Executive editor Veronica Schmidt

Videography and photography by Luke McPake 

Design by Luke McPake

Art direction by Dave Wright

Development by Van Veñegas

Made with the support of New Zealand On Air.