Story: Drugs

Page 1. Colonial drug-taking

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What are drugs?

Drugs are substances that affect the mind or body. Most drugs used in the 2000s are medical drugs prescribed to treat illnesses. Recreational drugs are taken primarily for pleasure. There is no exact distinction between medical and recreational drugs, since many drugs which later became recreational began with a medical use. Most recreational drugs that have been used in New Zealand have effects on perception, consciousness and behaviour. There are a range of types:

  • Opiates such as opium and heroin relieve pain and induce euphoria.
  • Stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines create excitement and increase energy; ecstasy can also be classed as a stimulant.
  • Depressants inhibit the function of the central nervous system and induce relaxation. The most commonly used are alcohol and tobacco.
  • Hallucinogens, which affect perception, include LSD; cannabis has some hallucinogenic qualities but is also a depressant.

Medical use

Māori had no known recreational drugs before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, although other Pacific people drank kava, a sedative made from the roots of the kava plant. Before 1900 settlers from the United Kingdom came from a society where there was widespread medical use of some drugs, especially opium, and this habit was brought to New Zealand.


From the early 1860s New Zealand newspapers published frequent advertisements for Chlorodyne, partly because there was a battle between two brands, J. Collis Browne’s original version and Richard Freeman’s ‘Genuine’ Chlorodyne. The advertisements claimed that it could cure cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea, cramp, fever, rheumatism, consumption, asthma, cough, epilepsy, hysteria, palpitation, convulsions, spasms, croup, whooping cough, colds, bronchitis, gout, cancer, tooth ache and all pain.

Opium was administered by doctors to provide relief from pain, improve the mood and induce sleep. Ordinary people also bought patent medicines containing opium from chemists and even local stores. The most popular form was laudanum, a liquid tincture that contained about 85 grams of opium suspended in a litre of alcohol. There were many other forms of patent medicines containing opium, from powders to soothing syrups that were administered to calm down children. A particularly common form of the drug was the patent medicine Chlorodyne, which was available both as a drink and as a cough lozenge for children.

Chlorodyne also included cannabis, another drug widely available for medical purposes in colonial New Zealand. Indian hemp cigarettes were advertised for the treatment of asthma, coughs and painful menstruation, and Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, founder of the Sisters of Compassion, included it in her remedies. Cannabis was, like opium, included in J. F. Neil’s very popular book New Zealand family herb doctor (1889). Cannabis resin was used to cure corns, while cannabis seeds were fed to poultry. The drug was cheap and freely available.

Some cocaine was also used as powder or syrup.

‘Army disease’

There have been some suggestions that New Zealand gold miners developed habits of smoking opium to escape from the physical discomfort of their work. It has been claimed the habit was introduced by Californian miners who had become addicted when, as wounded soldiers in the American civil war, they had been treated with morphine and opium. However, the number of Californian miners in New Zealand was tiny and other evidence of miners smoking opium is sparse – they would more likely have taken it as laudanum. Chinese gold miners were a conspicuous exception, as many did smoke opium.

Recreational use

How far medical use of these drugs became recreational is not clear, but some people undoubtedly became addicted to opium. In the early 1900s chemists reported that there were occasional ‘Chlorodyne fiends,’ mostly women. One woman consumed up to 2 ounces (57 grams) of laudanum a day for its exhilarating effects, but the number of addicts was small. In British literary society there was some experimentation with opium and cannabis in the 19th century. In New Zealand Governor George Grey took opium, but the practice was not widespread.

Chinese and opium

The only group who smoked opium extensively in 19th-century New Zealand were Chinese migrants. The drug had been introduced to China by the British, seeking an export from India to pay for Chinese tea, silver and porcelain. Opium-smoking spread quickly, especially around the port town of Canton (Guangzhou), from where many Chinese gold miners came. They introduced recreational opium-smoking to New Zealand. In 1867, before Chinese miners arrived, the consumption of dry opium in New Zealand was 0.85 grams per head; after their arrival consumption rocketed to 3.56 grams per head in 1871.

Killing the sex drive

Chinese miners did not bring their wives or families, and some have suggested that for an exclusively male community the smoking of opium provided a form of sexual sublimation. Sham Paak of Adams Gully told Alexander Don: ‘We Chinese are not accompanied by our wives, and the younger of us find opium very useful in repressing our passions.’1 Certainly opium-smoking provided a sedative and an escape from a tough physical life.

Not all Chinese miners smoked opium heavily. Alexander Don, a missionary who worked with Chinese miners, estimated that only two in 10 did. Young Hee, a Chinese immigrant, said that of 900 Chinese on the West Coast in 1900, 800 smoked and 270 were regular smokers. They smoked in dingy dens, where there would be stretchers for the smokers to recline. The opium was heated for 15 minutes, the actual smoking took one minute and then the euphoric effect lasted about three hours.

  1. Quoted in James Ng, Windows on a Chinese past. Vol. 2. Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1995, p. 297. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Drugs - Colonial drug-taking', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 Sep 2013