Story: Drugs

Page 5. Legal and social response to drugs

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Drugs and the law

The rise of drug-taking from the 1960s produced a legal response. The Narcotics Act 1965 implemented a United Nations convention distinguishing between dealing and possession, and included cocaine and hallucinogens such as LSD and mescaline. Ten years later the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 prohibited the manufacture, import, supply or possession of a controlled drug and provided for three classes of drugs – A (a very high risk of harm), B (a high risk) and C (a moderate risk). Penalties were imposed accordingly and in 1979 deterrent penalties for dealing drugs were increased.

In 2000 the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs was established to evaluate substances and recommend classifications. In 2010, 9,000 people were arrested in cannabis seizures, 1,280 for methamphetamine and 141 for ecstasy.

Control of borders has become increasingly severe, with detector (or ‘sniffer’) dogs common at international airports, and highly orchestrated police raids on cannabis growers and ‘P’ labs.


Government agencies and voluntary organisations such as the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, the New Zealand Drug Foundation and Life Education Trust have put huge energy into drug education. Narcotics Anonymous, which in New Zealand grew out of poet James K. Baxter’s concern for addicts in 1969, has a network to assist recovering drug addicts.


During the 1990s there was agitation for freer use of cannabis. A legalisation group, NORML, was active, and in 1996 the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party received 1.6% of the vote in the general election. In surveys in the 1990s cannabis ranked below solvent abuse, hard drugs, alcohol and tobacco as a community concern, and in a 2000 poll 56% wanted the law liberalised. However, 36% did not want change, and in 2001 only 9% of people aged 15–45 thought occasional use of the drug was ‘no risk’.

Increasingly, there was criticism of the effects of cannabis on young minds and, as the middle class became more concerned with issues of fitness and the dangers of smoking, ‘dope’ became identified with befuddled and low-performing people. With strains of the drug becoming stronger through selective breeding, and with as many as a third of users admitting driving under the influence and most conceding negative health effects, there seemed little immediate likelihood of liberalisation. The question of legalising the possession or cultivation of modest amounts of cannabis for personal use was to be put to a referendum at the same time as the 2020 general election.

There was even less tolerance of the harder drugs, and more concerted police action and public education rather than greater tolerance seemed likely. One indication of this was that in 2014, in response to increasing use of synthetic cannabis, all remaining 'legal highs' were outlawed until proven safe. In addition, testing on animals by those seeking to prove the safety of psychoactive products was made illegal.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Drugs - Legal and social response to drugs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 Sep 2013