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 sulphate tablets. By 2001 about one in a thousand people aged 15–45 were heroin users and about three in a thousand 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 sulphate (‘speed’). By 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 from about 1970 to 1974. There was some revival of use in the 1990s. However, 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; while 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% used it in the past year. In 2012 use in New Zealand was high internationally – 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 consumed by New Zealanders include magic (psilocybin) mushrooms, which can be 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 which was a drug of dance parties.
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 Pacific people 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 more men than women. There is a remarkably even spread of users by quintile of wealth. Māori and Europeans tend to be more frequent users than Pacific or Asian people, and Māori are particularly heavy users of amphetamines.