Black Power life member, former methamphetamine user and now, arguably, one of the country’s most successful anti-P campaigners.
This is the story of Denis O’Reilly. It is also a tale of community and about how strange bedfellows like rival Māori gangs Black Power and the Mongrel Mob are working together to reduce demand for pure methamphetamine. By Kim Thomas.
Denis O’Reilly’s mission was kick-started by the death of his friend Hone Day in 2003.
In his own words:
“Life was cool, busy and pretty low stress until… a friend [Day], a Black Power leader, took a knife and gutted himself in a bout of methamphetamine-induced psychosis. His death was a shock, both in manner and cause… the emotion of those days [during Day’s tangi] fired my desire for action, kia whakarite, the desire to put things right.”
Since Day’s death, O’Reilly – a Pākehā with the distinction of being a patched Black Power member for more than 40 years – has taken an at times unpopular stand against methamphetamine within his gang and in support of like-minded leaders in the Mongrel Mob.
He has toured the country spreading an anti-P message and organised a series of concerts where music and free food is accompanied by support for kicking methamphetamine addiction. He’s a vital part of a cutting-edge community initiative to make Hawke’s Bay methamphetamine-free.
O’Reilly’s involvement with methamphetamine began early in the noughties when he and other senior Black Power members were being wooed by methamphetamine suppliers.
“I was going through a low point, and here was this new stuff that made me feel good and rosy. I took to it like a duck to water.”
Within months of starting using the drug, O’Reilly began to experience its negative effects.
“I absolutely understand, from personal experience, what an addictive drug it is. I started to become abusive, and my family noticed my behaviours were getting pretty odd.”
The drug was also seriously affecting other Black Power members.
“We had a number of guys commit suicide. The Mob was experiencing a similar thing, their losses mainly being from heart attacks. I came to my senses. I remember holding my methamphetamine pipe in my hands and putting it in the rubbish bin. I said, ‘Fuck it, that’s enough.’ I knew this drug was different. I realised it had the potential to cause some real problems.”
The drug was causing very real problems for Hone Day.
“Hone had committed murder at 17. He was drunk and killed a milkman. Over his years in jail, he had an epiphany, and by the time he came out, he no longer drank or smoked and certainly didn’t take drugs,” recounts O’Reilly.
“He was strongly committed to his Māoritanga, and he was a fantastic coach. He had turned his life around and had a really bright future. He was appointed as the New Zealand Mā;ori Rugby League Coach and started university studies.
“But Hone got seduced into trying meth. It seemed to help him with his studies, which were pretty full-on, but within a short time, he was exhibiting bizarre behaviours.”
Day’s friends recognised the danger methamphetamine posed and took him out of Auckland and away from his suppliers. For some time, he stayed clean, O’Reilly says.
Meanwhile, the drug was taking its toll on others, with more Black Power members committing suicide.
Day returned to Auckland to attend one of the tangi and started using P again. Within a short time, he was using heavily and took his own life.
At Day’s tangi, O’Reilly and other senior gang leaders got together to talk about methamphetamine.
“I spoke my heart and asked the gang leaders present… to allow this old fossil to strike back against this substance that had taken our friends, and in the moment, I won their agreement.
“We started thinking that more of our men had died encountering this substance than in the gang wars. It was the enemy.
“I said we need to move against this drug and start protecting our families.”
The gathering of Black Power chapter leaders gave O’Reilly a mandate to campaign against methamphetamine, and he began travelling around marae for hui about the substance’s negative effects.
In some quarters, O’Reilly’s message was met with hostility.
“A few of the brothers would rather I shut my mouth about methamphetamine and would happily shut it for me. That tension is still there.”
O’Reilly’s efforts within Black Power caught the attention of then Associate Health Minister Jim Anderton. O’Reilly and his team were funded to undertake a study for the Ministry of Health and visited methamphetamine users, distributors, their families and communities.
“We concluded that, rather than finger wagging and demonising users, a more productive approach was to be optimistic and let those struggling with the substance know ‘we are on your side’,” O’Reilly says.
“We’re trying to encourage people to figure things out for themselves and to self-identify the behaviours that impede a positive future for themselves and their families. We want to promote hope within a whānau.”
That job is not always easy with methamphetamine readily available.
“When people are unemployed and desperate, there is the perception that there’s lots of money to be made from P.
“Someone gets out of prison, wants to make some money selling methamphetamine… we can’t really stop people selling. That’s a reality… but what we can do is work hard to reduce demand.”
‘Socially conscious’ leaders from the major Māori gangs have played their part in demand reduction, O’Reilly says.
In March 2005, Black Power and Mongrel Mob national leaders came together for a wānanga or learning-focused hui in Hastings. The Sensible Sentencing Trust also took part.
“I think that event confirmed to us that community coalitions are the way to go in countering methamphetamine. When key leaders of both gangs are agreeing that the stuff is no good, then it gives permission to the wise and brave to take a stance. Similarly, when criminal justice hardliners like the Sensible Sentencing Trust are prepared to support such positive shifts, you can see change is possible.”
It’s not only New Zealanders who have supported O’Reilly’s mission. American rock legend Joe Walsh of the Eagles has performed concerts promoting an anti-methamphetamine message in association with O’Reilly.
Walsh and O’Reilly met in the 80s when the Eagles’ guitarist and songwriter toured New Zealand. When the tour visited Waiohiki Marae in Hawke’s Bay, where O’Reilly lives, he took Walsh up to the ancient pā site of Ōtātara.
There, Walsh, a cocaine and methamphetamine addict, had an ‘epiphany’ that would lead to him going clean, and an enduring friendship was established between the two men, O’Reilly says.
Three decades later, Walsh offered to help in the fight against methamphetamine by staging a ‘Sinners Tour’. He performed at three concerts in 2004: at the New Zealand Parliament; Ōtātara Pā; and Hoani Waititi Marae in Auckland. During the concerts, Walsh told audiences: “Methamphetamine is evil. If you are involved in bringing it into the country or selling it or manufacturing it… you will eventually be responsible for people’s deaths.
“I have tried it. It is a dead end. It goes nowhere. It’s a demon, and it eats your soul from inside you. If you are doing meth, I say to you, no matter how awful things are, they will get worse beyond your wildest imagination. But you can come back, as hopeless as it looks.”
Late last year, O’Reilly and his supporters reflected on their progress. They decided the possibility of recovery that Walsh spoke about was key.
“We’d been on about the negative consequences of methamphetamine for a while and decided to change the emphasis to being on recovery. The Notorious chapter of the Mongrel Mob had shown a way forward by partnering with the Salvation Army and successfully running a 7-week residential recovery programme for 12 Mob families.”
O’Reilly says he and his team decided to use the Ōtātara Pā site as a healing space and start running concerts there.
Every February in Hawke’s Bay, there is a big local concert called the Mission Concert. The theme this year was Motown. O’Reilly says he decided to ‘come in on the shoulder’ of publicity about the Mission event and hold a ‘Māori Motown’ concert.
It was an alcohol-free, patch-free event, with a ‘you can beat methamphetamine’ message. Entertainers such as Frankie Stevens performed.
About 1,400 people, mainly families and those dealing with methamphetamine addiction, attended the event.
The Stellar Trust – which raises money for programmes aimed at reducing the use of methamphetamine – provided some sponsorship.
“With a foundation sponsor on board, we managed to convince others to put in modest sums. John Key sent a letter of encouragement,” O’Reilly says.
Paul Holmes, a Stellar Trust ambassador whose daughter Millie has battled methamphetamine addiction, spoke.
“He showed his heart, wearing it on his sleeve, and his sincerity reached every listener. His honesty reminded us that wealth and fame give no protection when meth comes visiting the whānau home,” says O’Reilly.
Paul Holmes says he just stood up and told them “our story” of meth.
“Our family went through 4, maybe 5 years of hell with our girl… the crowd she was mixing with seemed to change. Her behaviour became unusual and erratic. We had no idea what was happening. Until some months before her first arrest, I suppose. Looking back, I suppose, I just waited for the crash, for the train smash. It came one Sunday afternoon in a message from the Police that she was being held on serious charges and she wanted me to engage a lawyer.”
Holmes reckons Māori Motown was an “incredible event” for the community.
“The people who showed up in such numbers that evening showed me there is real local interest in doing something about this evil bloody stuff.”
He describes O’Reilly’s work as “wonderful”.
“Policing can’t fix the problem. It has to be done through community initiatives, through education. Denis is highly motivated.”
Buoyed by the success of Māori Motown, Walsh gifted O’Reilly US$5,000 to continue running monthly concerts at Ōtātara with an anti-methamphetamine message.
O’Reilly says his goal for 2010 is to work with others in the Hawke’s Bay community to get help for individuals and whānau confronting methamphetamine addiction.
“Māori Motown has catalysed some excellent community action. There is a movement abroad in the Hawke’s Bay, and I’ve attended three hui since, all of which propose a common methamphetamine-related agenda: wind down the hype and the demonisation of users; increase the clinical treatment and other addiction recovery services; and support whānau confronting methamphetamine.”
He is working with organisations such as the Stellar Trust, the local health board, community groups and addiction services.
Stellar Trust Chief Executive Officer Mike Williams says O’Reilly has been a “mentor” in the area of methamphetamine use and addiction.
“He’s very concerned about methamphetamine and its effects, particularly on young people. He’s a skilled social activist and has experience of a person very close to him with a serious P problem.”
Williams says O’Reilly is playing a major role in the methamphetamine-free Hawke’s Bay initiative being devised.
The initiative is likely to involve billboards promoting the meth-free message and letterbox drops of information about what behaviours accompany methamphetamine use.
The campaign is also likely to educate communities about signs someone is manufacturing methamphetamine in their neighbourhood and to encourage them to report suspicious activity to Police, Williams says.
Methamphetamine users will share their stories in the media.
Williams says a key part of the initiative will be setting up a network of support for users who want to give up and their families. This could range from providing users with a mentor who has experienced methamphetamine abuse to more intensive addiction rehabilitation services.
If the Hawke’s Bay initiative is successful, it could be expanded to other parts of the country, Williams says. O’Reilly is likely to be involved in such a development.
He says the campaign against methamphetamine will be a long, hard haul, but a worthwhile one.
“I am absolutely convinced we can not only have a methamphetamine-free Hawke’s Bay, but a methamphetamine-free New Zealand.”
O'Reilly writes a colum Nga Kupu Aroha (Words of Love) on www.nzedge.com.
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