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In 1990, some 5,000 New Zealanders were surveyed on their use of marijuana, and their attitudes and concerns relating to the drug. The survey found that marijuana had been tried by almost half of young adults in New Zealand. Throughout the 1990s there was a vigorous and diverse public debate on marijuana policy, often challenging policies and proposing alternatives. A follow-up survey of the same regions eight years later, in 1998, provides an opportunity to examine to what extent public views on marijuana have shifted.

This paper provides a brief overview of the history of marijuana use in New Zealand and examines the changing patterns of public attitudes to its use. It draws on the 1990 and 1998 regional surveys conducted in a metropolitan area (greater Auckland) and a provincial/rural area (Bay of Plenty) in 1990 and 1998. The paper concludes by looking at attitudes to marijuana use in these New Zealand surveys, in comparison with those from other countries with different cannabis policies.


Marijuana use in New Zealand dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, when it was both inexpensive and widely available. Known then as "Indian hemp", and not classed as a poison or subject to customs duties, the leaf and resin were commonly used by doctors, nurses and midwives, and often included in drug companies' products (Yska 1990). However, by World War I, hemp was increasingly associated with opium and crime. In response to a growing international clamour for legislative curbs on use, marijuana sale and use was made illegal under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1927. Use then virtually disappeared until the drug's revival in the 1950s and 1960s, reflecting increased marijuana use in other countries, and changing social norms.

The drug's illegal status did not change in subsequent years. New Zealand's historically restrictive approach to marijuana use should be seen in the context of international policies against use of the drug, beginning with actions led by the League of Nations after World War I, and continued by its successor, the United Nations (Fastier 1998, Yska 1990). New Zealand, as a signatory to the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, is obliged to assist with international efforts to control cultivation, production and distribution of cannabis, as well as a broad range of other recreational drugs (Krajewski 1999). Signatories to these agreements employ different strategies in meeting their international obligations, and New Zealand's response has been to enforce laws that make cultivation, supply, possession and use of cannabis illegal, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

Although cannabis use is explicitly illegal under New Zealand legislation, in practice New Zealand employs a mixture of supply reduction, demand reduction and harm-minimisation strategies (Abel and Casswell 1998). New Zealand has also on occasion taken an independent stance on drug issues in the international arena, including criticising countries that blindly pursue a "war on drugs" (Delamere 1998).

The cannabis issue has often arisen in the political arena. In the 1996 general election, the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party gained 1.6% of the party votes, under a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system, making it the seventh most popular party. In 1998, a cross-party Parliamentary Select Committee, investigating the mental health effects of cannabis, concluded that cannabis laws should be reviewed (Health Select Committee 1998). However, this was rejected by the governing National Party, whose response to the committee stated that the "legal status of cannabis is not an issue that the Government intends to review" (New Zealand Government 1999).

Cannabis policy became the subject of considerable debate during the 1999 election campaign. In the build-up to the election campaign, the Green Party called for "legalisation of possession of cannabis for personal use" (Green Party of Aoteoroa New Zealand 1999). In the later stages of the campaign, Prime Minister Shipley criticised the Green Party's policy on cannabis use, which attracted widespread media attention (Espiner 1999). When voting was completed, the Aoteoroa Legalise Cannabis Party had obtained 1.1% of the nation-wide party vote. Although this was a decline from 1.6% in 1996, it is believed that the attention given to the Green Party's policies led to some vote-switching (Gardiner 1999). The Green Party themselves polled 5.2% in the elections, entitling them to seven parliamentary seats (New Zealand Chief Electoral Office 1999).

Following the election, the new government announced its :intention to review the legal status of cannabis, in line with the December 1998 recommendations of the Health Select Committee (Espiner 2000). Should new legislation arise from the review, it seems certain to be debated in Parliament as a conscience issue (Bain 2000).


Two surveys on drug use by people aged 15-45 years were carried out in a metropolitan sample (the greater Auckland region) and a provincial/rural sample (Bay of Plenty) in 1990 (N = 5,125) and 1998 (N=5,037). All questions asked in the 1990 survey were repeated in the 1998 survey (Field and Casswell 1999).

Telephone numbers were selected from Auckland and Bay of Plenty calling areas using a stratified random-digit dialling method, so that each household within the two regions would have an equal chance of being called. The method also helps ensure that the number of individuals surveyed in an area was proportional to its population aged 1545 years. Within each household, one person was randomly selected for an interview.

The 1990 and 1998 regional surveys used the Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit's in-house computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) system. The response rate for the 1990 regional survey was 68% overall, and the 1998 survey achieved a 77% response rate, both of which were high for telephone surveys in New Zealand.

Since only one person was interviewed per household, survey analysis was weighted for household size, and statistical tests incorporated a design effect of 1.22, to account for increased statistical error. The survey results were analysed for the Auckland and Bay of Plenty regions combined, but differences between the two samples were investigated and reported where significant.

All differences reported were tested for statistical significance at a 1% level using parametric and non-parametric methods. Appropriate transformations were applied to continuous or nearly continuous variables prior to significance testing.


The results of the survey are summarised below. The main findings covered respondents': use of marijuana;

* perceptions of risk of harm from marijuana use; perceptions of the seriousness of the use of marijuana and other drugs as a community problem;

* perceptions of the acceptability of marijuana use under various circumstances; and

* opinions on current levels of enforcement of laws against using and selling marijuana.


The percentage of respondents in the regional surveys who had ever tried marijuana increased from 43% of the total sample in 1990 to 52% in 1998. This increase was at least in part a cohort effect. In 1990, respondents aged over 35 years were among those least likely to have tried marijuana, and by 1998, many of these people were outside the age range of the surveys. The 1990 prevalence levels among people aged 25 to 35 were carried through to the 35-45 age group in 1998. There was a small increase in the percentage who had used marijuana in the last year, from 18% in 1990 to 21% in 1998. However, this reflected a significant increase in use in the last 12 months in the metropolitan sample (from 18% to 22%), but not the provincial/ rural sample. Heavier marijuana use (smoking marijuana on ten or more occasions in the previous month) showed a trend towards an increase: from 2.4% in 1990 to 3.2% in 1998.(2)

Perceptions of Risk of Harm from Marijuana Use

All respondents in the regional surveys were asked how much they thought "people risk harming themselves" if they try marijuana once or twice; if they smoke marijuana occasionally; and if they smoke marijuana regularly. In general, perceptions of risk of harm from marijuana use did not change significantly between the two surveys. Thirty per cent in 1990 and 31% in 1998 thought trying marijuana posed no risk of harm; 11% in 1990 and 10% in 1998 thought occasional use posed no risk; and 1.5% in 1990 and 1.7% in 1998 thought regular marijuana use posed no risk of harm. There was, however, a small decline in the proportion of respondents who thought regularly smoking marijuana posed a "great risk" of harm, from 76% to 73%.

The small decline in perceptions of harm risk appears to have occurred alongside increases in use. Research among young people in the United States has had similar findings: beginning in 1992, a decline in perceived risk in regular marijuana use preceded steady increases in use through subsequent years (Johnston et al. 1998).

Community Concerns

In each regional survey, people were asked how serious different types of drug use were as community problems, using a scale from 1 (not serious)to 10 (serious). Responses were standardised to ensure that the figures reflected only relative differences within each individual's responses.

In both 1990 and 1998, marijuana had the lowest rating as a community concern, behind tobacco use, alcohol use, other illegal drug use and solvent abuse. However, concern relating to marijuana, alcohol and tobacco use increased between 1990 and 1998 (Figure 1). Concern about marijuana use was stronger in both surveys in the 15-17 year age groups, and steadily declined through older age groups (Figure 2). Although there was little difference in concern about marijuana between men and women in 1990, by 1998 women were generally more concerned than men.


Attitudes to Marijuana Use

Views on public acceptability of marijuana use were sought with respect to a range of locations: at a party; at the beach with friends; when children are around; before driving; and before work or study, with responses ranging from "acceptable to everyone" through to "acceptable to no one".

The perception of public acceptability in the regional surveys shifted towards less acceptance, when used around children, and at the beach (Table 1). Smoking marijuana at a party had the highest perception of public acceptability, but less than one in three respondents in each survey thought smoking marijuana at a party would be acceptable to most people.

Table 1 Perceptions of Public Acceptability of Marijuana Use in Different Contexts
 Acceptable to:

 Most people/ Few/ No one
 Almost everyone/ Some
Social Setting % % %
At a party
 1990 28 49 23
 1998 29 46 25
At beach with friends
 1990 16 50 34
 1998 17 46 38(*)
When children are around
 1990 2 23 75
 1998 1 19 80(*)
Before driving
 1990 4 23 74
 1998 4 23 73
Before work or study
 1990 2 25 73
 1998 2 24 75

(Percentages are of total sample)

(*) statistically significant change between 1990 and 1998 surveys

Perceptions of Drug Law Enforcement Against Marijuana

In each of the regional surveys, respondents were asked their views of the current level of enforcement against using and selling marijuana, summarised in Table 2.

Table 2 Perceptions of Marijuana Enforcement, 1990 and 1998
 Don't know Too light
 % %

Using marijuana 1990 19 24
 1998 16(*) 21(*)
Selling marijuana 1990 16 56
 1998 16 44(*)

 About right Too heavy
 % %

Using marijuana 32 25
 32 32(*)
Selling marijuana 20 8
 29(*) 12(*)

(Percentages are of total sample)

(*) statistically significant change between 1990 and 1998 surveys

A shift occurred between 1990 and 1998 on people's views of enforcement against people caught with marijuana for their own use, towards the laws being perceived as "too heavy". In 1990, 25% said they thought the current level of enforcement was too heavy; in 1998, this had increased to 32% of the sample. Those who thought laws were "too light" fell from 24% of the sample to 21%.

The proportion of respondents who felt the enforcement against people selling marijuana was too heavy increased from 8% in 1990 to 12% in 1998. The percentage who thought levels were "about right" also increased: from 20% to 29%, whereas those who thought enforcement levels were too light, declined from 56% of respondents in 1990 to 44% in 1998.

For both use and sale of marijuana, men were more likely than women in each survey to perceive enforcement as being too heavy. However, the proportion of both men and women who saw enforcement against use and sale of marijuana as too heavy increased from 1990 to 1998.


As parliamentarians and policy makers begin to debate changes in marijuana policy, the regional surveys provide indications of changes in public perceptions of marijuana. The surveys found some evidence of a relaxation in public views on enforcement against marijuana: by 1998 people were more inclined to think that enforcement against using marijuana was too heavy. A higher percentage of the respondents felt that enforcement against selling marijuana was too heavy, although almost half the sample in 1998 still believed enforcement was too light. Additionally, with regard to enforcement against use of marijuana, the percentage of respondents who said they didn't know or gave no response fell between the two surveys, suggesting some strengthening of viewpoints in response to debate on the issue.

The changes in views on marijuana enforcement occurred alongside an increase in the proportion of the age cohort 15-45 years who had used marijuana. By 1998, more than half of this cohort had tried marijuana, and those who had used the drug in the previous year remained steady at one in five respondents. A concurrent relaxation of views on enforcement is not unexpected in this context.

However, the surveys did not find evidence of general acceptance of marijuana use. The majority of people interviewed thought smoking marijuana would be unacceptable in many situations, and there was a strengthening of opinion against use around children and at the beach. Although ranking lower than other drugs, there was an increase in how seriously marijuana was viewed as a community problem, across all age groups. That use of marijuana in the previous 12 months remained a minority activity among respondents may in part reflect these views of the drug, as well as other factors such as marijuana's illegal status, and perceptions of risk of harm from use.

The differentiation in respondents' perceptions of enforcement, between use and sale of marijuana, is consistent with Australian studies on perceptions of marijuana use. A 1993 national survey found more than half of respondents felt that growing and possessing cannabis for personal use should be legal, while more than 80% felt sale of cannabis should be illegal (Bowman and Sanson-Fisher 1994). Similar conclusions can be drawn from the 1995 Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which found almost half of respondents supported legalisation of "possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal use", and two-thirds supported increased penalties for sale of marijuana (Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services 1996). However, in response to a different question in both the 1995 and 1998 surveys, barely a third were in support of personal use of marijuana (and a range of other illicit drugs) being made legal, highlighting the impact that question wording and context can have on responses (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 1999).

In the United States, the climate of opinion has prevailed against legalisation. Throughout the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, polls consistently found a majority of Americans opposed to legalisation of marijuana, although opinion has moved in favour of use for medicinal purposes (Gallup Organisation 1999, Single et al. 1999).

Further evidence of changing attitudes to cannabis enforcement between 1990 and 1998 can be found in a New Zealand Herald poll published in January 2000. It found a small majority of respondents (56%) did not want cannabis laws liberalised, while 36% were in favour of change. This was a major shift in opinion from two years earlier, when 71% of respondents did not want cannabis laws liberalised (Sell 2000).


This study shows two contrasting perspectives on marijuana. On the one hand, the results of these regional surveys showed use was to a small extent more widespread, and also point to some relaxation of views on enforcement of marijuana policies. These findings may be signalling an ongoing movement of opinion in favour of change in this area. On the other hand, disapproval of use of the drug remained strong in 1998. Although ranking lower than other drugs, both legal and illegal, community concern about marijuana increased between 1990 and 1998. The survey results suggests that while more people are willing for policymakers to lift some restrictions on marijuana use, social norms still prevail against marijuana use in many situations.

Just as the historic evolution of New Zealand's marijuana laws occurred within an international context, so too does the current debate. While New Zealand parliamentarians weigh up the pros and cons of changes in marijuana laws, a number of Australian state governments have followed in the footsteps of several US states and lifted some restrictions on marijuana use (Single et al. 1999). These developments across the Tasman may have significant influence, and together with changes in public attitudes and use of marijuana within New Zealand, may provide impetus for policy change.

(1) This comparison survey was a project of the Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit (APHRU), which is funded as a core programme of the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand. The funds for data collection of this sample were provided by the Health Research Council as an investigator initiated grant to Professor Sally Casswell. The quality of the data collected depended on the dedication of the team of computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) interviewers, and of their supervisors. Brendon Dacey and Francesca Holibar coordinated the CATI team and the data collection process. Jia-fang Zhang, Michael Ford and Dr Krishna Bhatta, carried out data management and statistical analysis. We also acknowledge the time and willingness of participants to respond to the survey, without which the project could not have taken place.

(2) This trend was statistically significant at the p [is less than] 0.05.


Abel, S., and S. Casswell (1998) "Cannabis in New Zealand: policy and prospects" Social Policy Journal of New Zealand 10: 70-85.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (1999) 1998 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: first results, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra.

Bain, H. (2000) "Cannabis debate back on agenda" The Dominion 17 March, p.1.

Bowman, J., and R. Sanson-Fisher (1994) Public perceptions of cannabis legislation, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services (1996) National Drug Strategy Household Survey: Survey Report 1995, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Delamere, T. J. (1998) Statement by Hon. Tuariki John Delamere, Minister of Customs and Associate Minister of Health of New Zealand, Twentieth Special Session of the General Assembly on the World Drug Problem.

Espiner, G. (1999) "Shipley enters Coromandel fray" Evening Post 17 November, p.1.

Espiner, G. (2000) "Cannabis review begins with fact-finding trip" Evening Post 21 January, p.1.

Fastier, F. N. (1998) Drugs and the Law in New Zealand, Amidine Publications, Dunedin.

Field, A., and S. Casswell (1999) Drug Use in New Zealand: Comparison Surveys 1990 & 1998, Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit, University of Auckland.

Gallup Organization (1999) "Americans Oppose General Legalization of Marijuana" Gallup Organization, 9 April <>

Gardiner, J. (1999) "Pro-dope vote divided, say reformers." New Zealand Herald, 22 November, p.5.

Green Party of Aoteoroa New Zealand (1999) "Towards a Harm Reduction Model" The Green Party Policy on Cannabis and Drug Law Reform.

Health Select Committee (1998) Inquiry into the Mental Health Effects of Cannabis: Report of the Health Committee, GP Print, Wellington.

Johnston, L. D., P. M. O'Malley and J. G.Bachman (1998) National Survey Results from the Monitoring the Future Study, 1975-1997, Volume I: Secondary School Students, US Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD.

Krajewski, K. (1999) "How flexible are the United Nations drug conventions?" International Journal of Drug Policy, 10:329-338.

New Zealand Chief Electoral Office (1999) "New Zealand Elections: Official Count Results - Overall Status" New Zealand Chief Electoral Office.

New Zealand Government (1999) "Government Response to Report of the Health Select Committee on the Inquiry into the Mental Health Effects of Cannabis" New Zealand Government.

Sell, B. (2000) "The times are a-changing for cannabis law reformers" New Zealand Herald 10 January, p.1.

Single, E., P. Christie and R. Ali (1999) The impact of cannabis decriminalisation in Australia and the United States, Drug and Alcohol Services Council, Adelaide.

Yska, R. (1990) New Zealand Green: The Story of Marijuana in New Zealand, David Bateman,

Auckland. Adrian Field Sally Casswell Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit Runanga, Wananga, Hauora me te Paekaka University of Auckland
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Author:Casswell, Sally
Publication:Social Policy Journal of New Zealand
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jul 1, 2000

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