Story: Drugs

Page 2. Restricting drugs, 1866 to 1965

All images & media in this story

First steps

Despite the acceptability of drugs in 19th-century New Zealand, opposition to their easy availability emerged. Doctors and chemists wished to assert control over their distribution. In Britain there was concern about opium poisonings and adulteration of the drug. There were misgivings about the working class using opium syrups to quieten children.

The consequences in New Zealand were:

  • the Sale of Poisons Act 1866, which required opium to be labelled as a poison
  • an 1871 act which required vendors of opium to be registered.

Growing opposition

In the last decades of the 19th century doctors began to recognise addiction to opium as a disease. The temperance and social-purity movements increasingly saw drugs as undermining moral cleanliness and free will – although they believed the dangers were less than the problems created by alcohol.

The Chinese community was responsible for the next major restriction. Concerned about the moral effects and expense of opium-smoking, the Chinese community initiated a campaign against it in 1888. When this failed a new campaign emerged from 1899 among the Chinese of the West Coast led by a young law clerk, Young Hee. They petitioned Parliament to prohibit imports of opium and played on fears that the habit might spread to Europeans. Parliament responded with the Opium Prohibition Act 1901, which prohibited the smoking of opium and the import of the drug in a form suitable for smoking. The police were given powers to search Chinese premises without a warrant.

Quackery prevention

The Quackery Prevention Act 1908 also tried to restrict patent medicines. It was not effective, but, responding to the public mood, makers of patent medicines began to remove opium and morphine and to advertise that their products were ‘free of opium’. Except as a lozenge flavour, advertisements for Chlorodyne had disappeared from newspapers by 1910 and instead Chamberlain's Cough Remedy was promoted as ‘absolutely free from Opium, Morphia, Heroin, Chloroform, Chlorodyne, Ether or any other poisonous substance or anodyne.’1

The acts of Parliament did not end the use of opium. People could still purchase up to 24 grains of opium a week from chemists and, with a prescription, up to 16 fluid ounces in liquid form. Heroin (a new derivative of opium), cannabis and cocaine remained unregulated. In fact after 1895 cannabis was made exempt from customs duty.

Anzacs and drugs

A number of soldiers training in Cairo during the First World War reported seeing hashish (a cannabis preparation) being consumed. Some were offered ‘cigarettes’ of cannabis and then while under the influence were robbed. The experience heightened fears of the dangers of drugs.

International influences

During the first decades of the 20th century there was increasingly lurid media coverage of drug scenes in Sydney, London and New York. Ultimately it was international pressure that forced New Zealand to further restrict drugs. An international convention in 1912 required the regulation of the importation of opium and other drugs. New Zealand acceded to this in 1919 by extending controls to heroin, morphine, codeine and cocaine. In 1924 another international convention required restrictions on a growing range of drugs, which the following year was extended to Indian hemp or cannabis.

Dangerous Drugs Act 1927

The Dangerous Drugs Act 1927 was designed to bring New Zealand into line internationally rather than to control a local problem – the minister conceded that there was no evidence of extensive use of addictive drugs in New Zealand. The act confirmed prohibitions on opium smoking and established a list of dangerous drugs, which included cannabis. They could be imported and manufactured only under licence, and could be purchased only from a doctor or chemist and with a medical prescription.

The Poisons Act 1933 also tightened controls over the use of cannabis in asthma treatments, but Grimault’s Indian hemp cigarettes and corn bandages were exempt.

Despite these restrictions there was still considerable use of the drugs under prescription for medical purposes. In the late 1940s it was discovered that doctors were prescribing heroin so freely that New Zealand had one of the world’s highest rates of use per person. By 1955 this had been drastically reduced. In the same year, in response to a World Health Organization request, New Zealand agreed to end cannabis imports.

New Zealand entered the 1960s with low acceptance of recreational or addictive drugs.

  1. Ohinemuri Gazette, 1 April 1910, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Drugs - Restricting drugs, 1866 to 1965', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 Sep 2013