Dr Erena Wikaire awarded $554k to study cannabis, meth use

By Jessica Tyson

A kaupapa Māori analysis of cannabis and meth use is the focus of a $554,000 postdoctoral fellowship awarded to Māori health researcher Dr Erena Wikaire.

The research will provide insights into Māori experiences of substance use. It will also apply traditional Māori understandings of rongoā māori to reducing drug harm.

Wikaire, of Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Te Kapotai and Te Hikutu, says whānau experience considerable impacts from substance use that is linked directly to wider system-level factors. As well as that, health system solutions are severely limited and whānau are accessing overstretched and underfunded health services that are not always conducive to Māori needs.

“As far as I can find, there are very few, if any, studies to date that ask Māori why they use these substances. There’s very little Māori voice; there are lots of expert non-Māori voice about Māori but there’s not much coming from people with lived experiences.”

Victim-blame approach

Wikaire says Māori concern for the wellbeing of whānau is clear and urgent but the Western health system approach to substance use often takes a “victim-blame” approach and lacks strategic interventions that consider and address the root causes of problems.

She says system approaches to date have placed responsibility with the individual and the topic has been approached more as a criminal act than a health issue.

“As a result, the data available on cannabis and methamphetamine use is largely linked to the justice system. However, there’s a need for kaupapa Māori analysis that links together available datasets and reveals other potential systemic factors at play. What are the stories that whānau are yet to tell?”

Research for policymakers

The findings of this research will inform the work of policymakers, funders, health and wider sectors, community-level organisations and whānau.

“I feel if we change our understanding and thinking about substance use, then that will inform the approaches we take, and those approaches will be more effective for Māori.” 

She says there are many spaces where public health approaches align with rongoā Māori (traditional Māori healing systems), such as in health promotion and environmental sustainability, and adds that indigenous healing systems offer valuable health solutions.  

“Indigenous knowledge systems provide scientifically sound understandings of health and wellbeing, and I feel as a country we’re in a position where we’re looking to those approaches for help in answering our health priorities.”

The Health Research Council of New Zealand chief executive, Professor Sunny Collings, says this year’s award recipients are tackling a broad range of priorities important to their communities and New Zealanders.  

The council’s annual career development awards help foster and sustain New Zealand's health research workforce. More than $13.38 million was announced for researchers across three categories – general, Māori health, and Pacific health. The Hohua Tutengaehe Fellowship is one of several career development awards announced today by the council.