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by Jock Phillips

In the 19th century many patent medicines used by New Zealanders included opium and cannabis in their ingredients, both of which were made illegal in the 20th century. Because of strict border controls many hard drugs are rare in New Zealand in the early 21st century. However, the country has one of the highest levels of cannabis use in the world.

Colonial drug-taking

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.

    • Quoted in James Ng, Windows on a Chinese past. Vol. 2. Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1995, p. 297. Back

Restricting drugs, 1866 to 1965

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.

    • Ohinemuri Gazette, 1 April 1910, p. 2. Back

Cannabis use

Early use

Until the mid-1960s there was little use or even knowledge of cannabis in New Zealand. In the 1930s there was occasional newspaper coverage of ‘dope’ being consumed among the swinging set in New York or London, and the few who listened to jazz may have picked up mention of ‘reefers’. It is possible there was some smoking of marijuana by American soldiers stationed in New Zealand in 1942–44, and a few New Zealand soldiers stationed in Egypt experienced the hubble-bubble or hookah pipe in Cairo bars.

The first significant smoking of the drug occurred among a few beats and jazz enthusiasts frequenting nightclubs and coffee lounges in Wellington and Auckland in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, annual drug arrests did not reach 50 before 1964.

Hippie revolution

Then things changed quickly. The baby boomers reached adulthood and began to question authority. New Zealand became involved in the Vietnam War, sparking a decade of protest. Overseas influences in the form of new sounds such as the Beatles’ psychedelic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, or the example of the ‘summer of love’ at Haight–Ashbury in San Francisco spread the drug-taking message among university students, surfies, pop musicians and anyone under 30.

A ‘head’ culture

By the 1970s a drug culture was established in New Zealand. There were ‘head shops’ selling drug paraphernalia such as flavoured rolling papers, roach clips, water-cooled bongs, psychedelic posters and incense burners. The shops also sold books such as Cannabis cultivator’s guide and the New Zealand whole earth catalogue which, along with guidance on how to be a hippie, provided instruction on how to grow the crop. In 1978 and 1979 the Nambassa rock festival held ‘smoke-ins’.

The number of cannabis plants seized by police rose from 3,000 in 1975 to 14,000 the following year, and by 1980 a national survey suggested there were 600,000 regular cannabis users. The practice spread into schools and even the army. In 1990 there were more than 18,000 prosecutions and over 150,000 cannabis plants seized.

This fast social change did not go unquestioned. Police vice squads were set up in 1965, in part to tackle the drug problem. This became more serious with the emergence of the Mr Asia drug ring in 1974, which imported huge quantities of cannabis ‘Buddha sticks’ and eventually heroin.

Use in the 2000s

By the 2000s the level of cannabis use in New Zealand was fairly consistent over several surveys. About half of those aged 15–45 had tried the drug, about a fifth had used it in the last year and about 15% were current users.

Leading the world?

The 2012 United Nations drug report suggested that 14.6% of New Zealanders aged 16–64 had consumed cannabis in the last year. The report claimed that this was equal with Italy as the highest level in the world – significantly higher than Australia, Canada and England, and slightly higher than the US.

More men than women smoked cannabis, and they tended to be young – about 60% of users had experimented with the drug by the age of 17 and the heaviest use was among those aged 18 to 24. There was a remarkably even spread of users across all income quintiles – it was not a drug of the poor. However, there were marked ethnic differences. In a 2007/8 survey of those aged 16–64, Māori were the highest users (over a quarter), significantly higher than Europeans, twice as high as Pacific people and more than seven times as high as Asians (of whom less than 4% used cannabis).

Most smoking of cannabis occurred in private homes, and the drug was overwhelmingly produced within New Zealand. During the 1990s about 200,000 plants were seized each year, with the main areas of cultivation being in Northland, Bay of Plenty and Tasman. Distribution often involved gang members. Most users purchased the drug from friends or at ‘tinnie houses’.

Hard drugs

New Zealand has unusual patterns in the taking of hard drugs, largely because of strict border controls. The high-profile drugs overseas – cocaine and heroin – are less common. Domestically produced drugs such as ‘homebake’ (an opiate) and amphetamines are more common, as is ecstasy.


Although opium was the first drug used in New Zealand, opiates are not widely used in the 2000s. In 1974, following renewed interest in illegal drugs, heroin arrived in the country and there were 24 criminal cases. This rose to over 300 by 1979. Strict border enforcement restricted supplies and drug users turned to other drugs or began to make homebake from codeine or morphine sulfate tablets. By 2001 about one in 1,000 people aged 15–45 were heroin users and about three in 1,000 used homebake. Others were taking morphine or poppies, but the number of adults who had ever tried opiates was only about 4%. Given opium’s addictive nature, users took it regularly. However, awareness of the dangers was high – 86% of frequent drug users considered opiates a great health risk in 2005.


Cocaine is a stimulant derived from the South American coca plant. Through strict border control, New Zealand largely avoided the cocaine epidemic which swept Europe and the US in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 2000s use was low, with only 0.6% of adults aged 16–65 using it in the previous year, and most only occasionally.


Amphetamines are stimulant synthetic drugs that produce energy and euphoria. The most common form in New Zealand is methamphetamine, commonly called ‘P’, although also referred to as ‘crank,’ ‘meth’ or ‘ice’. The drug is snorted, injected or smoked. Increasing doses are required to sustain the effect, and this can produce paranoia, mood swings and violence. Users quickly become addicted to the drug. In 2004 half of those admitted to hospitals for drug-related poisonings had been affected by amphetamines.

Most ‘P’ is made in clandestine labs and produces dangerous toxic fumes and potential explosions. Gangs have been involved in these ‘clan labs’. In the 2000s over 100 labs were being detected by police each year.

‘P’ took hold in the 1990s, largely replacing low-potency amphetamine sulfate (‘speed’). In 2007, 2.1% of those aged 15–64 had used it in the past year. This was high internationally, but similar to Australian levels of use. In 2018 nearly 1.8 tonnes of methamphetamine was seized in New Zealand, mostly by Customs at the border.


LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is a synthetic hallucinogen which distorts the senses. Effects last for up to 12 hours. It is not addictive, but can sometimes cause psychotic episodes. LSD became popular in many western countries in the 1960s, associated with youthful rebellion. It spread to the New Zealand counter-culture in the early 1970s. There was some revival of use in the 1990s, but this declined in the 2000s. In 2007, although 8% of the population aged 16–65 had used LSD in their lifetime, only 1.2% had done so in the past year.

Names tripping off the tongue

Drugs seem to attract a huge number of nicknames, many unique to New Zealand, partly to allow surreptitious communication about them. For example LSD is known as acid, trips, tabs, sugar cubes and paper; ecstasy is called E, pills, lollies, bikkies and the love drug.


Ecstasy, or MDMA, gives users a burst of energy and empathy with others. It was little used until 1997 when it became popular at dance parties. There has been an increasing use of ecstasy in New Zealand. In 1998, 3% of those aged 15–45 had tried the drug, but by 2007, 6.2% of those aged 16–65 had done so, and 2.6% had used it in the past year. In 2012 use in New Zealand was high by international standards – second only to Australia. Users tended to be young – under age 34 – and their use was occasional rather than regular. Although it is not considered dangerous by drug users, there have been at least three deaths associated with ecstasy in New Zealand, largely caused by heat stroke.

Other hallucinogens

Other hallucinogens consumed by New Zealanders include magic (psilocybin) mushrooms, which are harvested in autumn. In 2007, 0.6% of people aged 16–65 had taken these, and about 0.3% had taken ketamine, an anaesthetic used in veterinary surgery and at dance parties.

Other drugs

From about 2000 BZP (benzylpiperazine) ‘party pills’ were sold widely. People used them only occasionally – mainly at concerts or nightclubs – rather than regularly. In 2005 a minimum age of purchase of 18 was imposed and in 2008 they were reclassified as Class C drugs and therefore illegal. In 2007, before the ban, 5.6% of those aged 16 to 64 had used party pills in the past year, the second-highest use of drugs after cannabis.

Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) was used by less than 1% of those aged 16–64 in 2007, and small numbers used GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid) or fantasy. Sniffing solvents remained a problem among those under 18 and several deaths have resulted.

Among Pasifika drinking kava, a sedative, was an accepted cultural tradition.


In general, users of hard drugs tend to be aged in their 20s and early 30s, and men rather than women. There is a remarkably even spread of users by quintile of wealth. Māori and Europeans tend to be more frequent users than Pasifika or Asian people, and Māori are particularly heavy users of amphetamines.

Legal and social response to drugs

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Drugs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 September 2013