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.
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’.