Book review: Gangland by Jared Savage

(Harper Collins, 2020)

Reviewed by Peter Johnston
General Manager Research & Analysis, Ara Poutama Aotearoa (Department of Corrections)

Dr Peter Johnston, DipClinPsych, PhD, has been with the Department of Corrections for over 30 years. He started with the Psychological Service in Christchurch as one of three psychologists who set up the first special treatment unit, Kia Marama, at Rolleston Prison in 1989. He then moved to the (then) Prison Service, where he was involved in setting up prisoner assessment centres and designing an end-to-end case management system. As GM Research and Analysis since 2004, he led a team of nine staff who undertake research and evaluation, and in-depth analysis of criminal justice data, to measure the impacts of rehabilitation, shed light on trends and developments in the offender population, and support new policy initiatives.

The author of this book, a New Zealand Herald journalist, draws on his years of court reporting in Auckland to convey the history of methamphetamine importation, manufacture and distribution in New Zealand. This is an accessible rather than a scholarly treatment of the subject, and the book sticks to the public events and those facts that anyone who attended the court cases might have learned from doing so.

Through a series of chapters each focused on a specific individual, or a criminal court case, the narrative created is alarming and horrifying in equal measure. It appears that New Zealand, since the late 1990s, has become a magnet for international drug dealers, initially mostly from China, but more recently from Mexico and South America also. These organised crime groups have linked up with New Zealand gangs, and via that conduit have pushed methamphetamine into every nook and cranny of New Zealand society. The result is that, at a per capita level, New Zealand now has one of the highest rates of meth consumption in the world.

The main reason for this influx has been the unusually high price that users in this country are willing to pay. Consequently, the profits to be made through importation and supply are extremely high, leading to a “gold rush” mentality amongst those involved.

The ways in which volumes of the drug coming into the country have grown is remarkable. When meth first began to be noticed by Police, the usual “bust” involved just a few grams of the drug. Over time the size and frequency of individual busts has simply grown and grown. Jared Savage notes how a 100kg find in 2006 was seen as a shocking, record-breaking haul. Finding that amount of the drug in any given operation is now no longer unusual, with a 500kg shipment located on a Northland beach a few years back the current record.

The book is strong in painting a picture of the personalities of the key players involved, especially those who ended up in court. It outlines the sophisticated methods employed to get the drug into the country. There are also interesting details on how various gangs have risen and fallen in prominence with respect to the trade, including the emerging impact of imported gangs whose membership is largely drawn from Australian criminals deported here.

The cat-and-mouse dynamic between criminals and the Police is laid out in intriguing detail. The author pays special tribute to the skills, dedication and dogged determination of the Police officers who work on these cases, commenting at one point that we as a country are very lucky to have such skilled and committed staff, who often work long hours, at times facing intimidation and threats from the criminals they are targeting. The fact that New Zealand continues to have a police service which is largely free from corruption is remarkable, given the level of sophistication that the drug dealers display, and the huge amounts of money they have at their disposal for “turning” officers.

Reading this book as a justice sector professional, I couldn’t help considering the havoc wrought in our society through the rampant peddling of this drug. Methamphetamine is a uniquely criminogenic drug (Foulds et al, 2020), in particular in its propensity to motivate individuals to commit the most appalling crimes while under its influence (Yi Liu et al, 2017). The meth trade has inflated crime levels throughout the country, particularly serious crimes committed by users in pursuit of their next fix, or as a result of the near-psychotic states of mind that meth consumption can induce.

The other dimension of the meth trade that has a huge impact on us at Corrections is the significant growth in the prisoner population driven by the growth in numbers of people imprisoned for dealing in meth. From just a handful of individuals in the early 2000s, the number of people imprisoned peaked at just under 1000 in 2017, though it has fallen back since. Given the grievous harms caused by the drug, the sentences imposed on these individuals can often be very lengthy, including life sentences with non-parole periods in excess of 20 years. Consequently, meth dealers now constitute around 10% of the prisoner population, which is a significant reason why the overall population has swelled in the last decade.

As the graph indicates, the last year has seen an unusual and abrupt dip in numbers in new sentence starts, which is almost certainly associated with the reduced volumes of imported meth, in turn related to the more or less complete cessation of international travel since the COVID-19 pandemic lock-down early in 2020. However, as Gangland clearly shows, the ruthlessly determined players in the meth scene doubtless have been busy working out new ways of getting their product to the market, so there is little basis for hoping that a corner has been turned.


Foulds, J., Boden, M., McKetin, R., & Newton-Howes, G., (2020). Methamphetamine use and violence: Findings from a longitudinal birth cohort, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 207(1), 1-25.

Yi Liu, Bo Hao, Yanwei Shi, Li Xue, Xiaoguang Wang, Yefei Chen (2017). Violent offences of methamphetamine users and dilemmas of forensic psychiatric assessment. Forensic Sciences Research, 2(1), 11-17.