We've gathered together some important data, to help give an overview of how New Zealanders use drugs.
Alcohol and other drugs have been used by people throughout history, and New Zealand is no different. Almost half of our adult population (49.0 percent) has used recreational drugs at some point in their lives, and 93 percent of New Zealanders will try alcohol. One in five adults (19.9 percent) drinks in a way that could pose a risk to their health [NZ Health Survey 2020/21].
People use alcohol and other drugs for many reasons – recreation, spiritual discovery, performance enhancement, peer pressure, or to medicate physical or emotional pain. Most people who use substances will not experience long-lasting negative effects - In fact, according to the Ministry of Health, four out of five New Zealand adults who used an illicit drug in the past year reported no harmful effects.
However for a small group, drug use - whether legal or illegal - can cause significant harm. The harm these people experience can be wide-ranging, from injury and disease through to social, financial and legal problems. It can also affect their whānau, friends and the wider community.
About 50,000 people receive support for alcohol and other drug use each year in New Zealand – and that’s estimated to be only a third of those experiencing problems. The current legal prohibition of some drugs in New Zealand also means that we spend a great deal on enforcement – including Police, courts and prison beds.
According to Ministry of Health figures (obtained under the Official Information Act), Māori, Pacific people, and people living in the poorest neighbourhoods are more likely to experience harm from their own alcohol or drug use. They are also most likely to want help with their drug use but not receive it.
$ total estimated drug-related harm in NZ each year (source NZ Drug Harm Index 2020)
Most New Zealanders over 15 use alcohol at least once a year, and a concerning number use in a way likely to cause themselves harm (19.5% in 2020/21). 78.5% percent of New Zealand’s adult population reported drinking alcohol at least once during 2020/21.
To work out whether your drinking is harmful, check out this online tool.
Smoking rates continue to fall, but they remain stubbornly high in some demographic groups. According to the NZ Health Survey, 9.4% of New Zealanders smoke daily – an estimated 387,000 adults. The rate of daily smoking has fallen nearly 5% in the past five years.
Socio-economic status makes a huge difference to how likely a person is to smoke. Those living in the poorest neighbourhoods are more than seven times more likely to smoke daily than those in the wealthiest, and Māori are more than three times more likely than non-Māori (22.3%) to smoke daily.
For more information on alcohol and tobacco use, see our latest State of the Nation
Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in New Zealand.
15.3% of adults used cannabis in the past year, and 4.5%, or 75,000 adults, smoke cannabis monthly. Use is higher for Māori, young people, and those living in less wealthy neighbourhoods.
Methamphetamine use has remained relatively stable in the past 5 years, but some communities face more harm than others.
It’s widely believed that methamphetamine (‘P’) use is growing in New Zealand. However, overall recorded numbers of people using amphetamines (including methamphetamine) have remained relatively stable in the past 5 years, at around 1 percent of the population.
It’s hard to determine how accurate these figures are, because official surveys don’t include populations that have higher rates of drug use, such as people who are in insecure housing or in prison. It’s fair to say that while overall usage remains low, methamphetamine has become a serious concern in some communities.
Use of other illicit drugs is relatively low in New Zealand
The last published Ministry of Health survey on illicit drug use was done over a decade ago in 2007/08. It found that use of other drugs such as LSD and opiates was not widespread.
It's hard to get an accurate picture of which illicit drugs people are using, but police seizures provide some insights. Cannabis is the most frequently seized drug by a huge margin, and the amount seized has increased since 2017. Other drugs are seized far less often, but MDMA seizures have increased over the past three years while synthetic cannabinoid seizures have fallen. (Source: National Drug Intelligence Bureau).
For more information on illicit drug use, see our latest State of the Nation.
There are still too many young people entering the youth justice system for low-level cannabis offences. For most young people, the harm of being brought into the criminal justice system will far outweigh the harms of having experimented with cannabis.
The good news is that during the six years prior to and culminating in the 2019 discretion amendment, warnings and prosecutions of young people aged 17 and under for drug-related offences fell dramatically in favour of youth referrals.
However, the overall numbers of young people entering the youth justice system due to drug offences are still too high. According to the Safe And Effective Justice Advisory Group (2019), there were 913 drug-related referrals in 2020, of which 90% were for possession and use of drugs or drug utensils.
Of drug proceedings for young people:
For more information about drug use among young people, see our latest State of the Nation
While not all drug use is harmful, drug harm costs New Zealand a lot of money. The social cost of drug-related harm was estimated to cost New Zealand $813.09 million in 2020 (NZ Illicit Drug Harm Index 2020). The social cost includes harms to an individual’s health, whānau, friends and the wider community.
The Government spends around $350 million each year addressing drug-related issues. Most of this money is spent on enforcement, rather than treatment. According to the Government’s Drug Harm Index 2016 (the most recent figures available), yearly expenditure by government agencies on drug-related issues is estimated to be:
|Government agency||Expenditure in $million|
|Ministry of Health||78.3|
|Courts and Corrections||170|
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