Hard News by Russell Brown


History repeats: New Zealand's history of drugs and the law

The New Zealand Drug Foundation has posted the cover story I wrote for the current issue of its Matters of Substance magazine. It covers our history of substance use and abuse, the laws that have attempted to control them and the ways that psychoactive drug use has steered and responded to popular culture.

I've been regaling friends with elements of it ever since I filed the copy. Do you know that in the 1940s, New Zealand had the highest rate of heroin use in the world -- because doctors commonly prescribed it? Or that New Zealand had medical cannabis  (it was prescribed for migraine and hypertensive headaches) well into the 1950s? The United Nations and the World Health organisation had to prevail on our government to end both practices.

I also looked at the Mr Asia years, when the network that imported and distributed both heroin and cannabis was so pervasive that many of today's outwardly respectable baby-boomers have some story or other in connection with it. Tens of thousands of them also suffer from Mr Asia's great long-term consequenece: the silent epidemic of Hepatitis C.

The arrival of (or sudden attention to) new drugs takes a familiar pattern over the decades. Way back in the 1930s, the Auckland Star ran a glossary headed ‘Argot of the Dope Fiends’ (“H” for heroin, “Candy” for cocaine and “Happy dust” for “any powdered dope”). There is typically a panic and a crackdown but very few drugs actually disappear. In recent years, the cycle has picked up speed and the drug panics turn over more quickly.

And still, we pass laws. In Matters of Substance itself, I listed our most significant drug legislation in a sidebar. That's not online yet, so I've included it below in this post. We've been trying at this for a long time now, and you still cannot say we really know what we're doing.

NB: I'd really like to thank David Herkt for his help and advice on this story. His three-part documentary High Times: The New Zealand Drug Experience was very useful.


Poisons Administration Prevention Act 1866

The first attempt to control the sale of readily-available drugs such as laudanum and opium required only that the identity of the purchaser be recorded.

Sale of Poisons Act 1871

The first attempt to restrict the sellers of drugs to those on a register of licensed dealers.

Customs Law Consolidation Act 1882

Confined the importation of opium to larger vessels at specified ports.

Opium Prohibition Act 1901

New Zealand's first anti-drug statute targeted Chinese immigrants. It banned the smoking of opium and its importation for smoking and was amended in 1910 to specifically ban any Chinese person from buying opium without a prescription.

Quackery Prevention Act 1908

The first consumer protection legislation around drug sales.

Dangerous Drugs Act 1927

Made it an offence to import, produce or deal in a range of drugs, most of which remained available on prescription.

Poisons Act 1934

Defined certain drugs, such as barbiturates, as "prescription poisons" available only on prescription.

Narcotics Act 1964

Ratified New Zealand's commitment to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Covered more than 100 substances, from LSD to opium and cannabis. For the first time, the law made a meaningful distinction between possession and "dealing" and defined quantities at which dealing was presumed. Reversed the onus of proof, provided for warrantless searches and, as Ray Henwood put it in his 1971 book A Turned On World: Drug Use in New Zealand, smacked of "using a cannon to kill flies."

Misuse of Drugs Act 1975

Serially amended since, but still the applicable law, the MODA introduced the three schedules, A, B and C, based on the assessed harm caused by individual drugs and, inline with the recommendations of the Blake-Palmer report, set much lower maximum penalties for personal use or possession. Notable amendments include those in 1988 and 1996, which made the law automatically apply to drug analogues (substances that have a substantially similar chemical structure to that of a controlled drug).

The Pyschoactive Substances Act 2013

A work in progress.

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