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%) has used recreational drugs at some point in their lives, and 93%of New Zealanders will try alcohol. Almost one in five adults (18.8%) drinks in a way that could pose a risk to their health [NZ Health Survey 2021/2022].
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 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 alcohol or drug use. They are also most likely to want help with their drug use but not receive it.
A 2023 study that ranked drug harms in New Zealand found that alcohol is the most harmful drug in Aotearoa, followed by methamphetamine.
Most New Zealanders over 15 use alcohol at least once a year, and among those who drink, a concerning number use alcohol in a way likely to cause themselves harm (23.8% in 2021/22). The vast majority (79.1%) of New Zealand’s adult population reported drinking alcohol at least once during 2021/22.
To work out whether your drinking is harmful, check out this online tool.
In contrast to alcohol, methamphetamine use is much less common. Around 1.3% of New Zealanders used illicit amphetamine-type stimulants at least once in the previous 12 months in 2021/22. While most are not regular or dependent users, this is roughly 54,000 adults who may be at risk of health, social or legal harms if appropriate information and support are not available.
There are still too many young people entering the youth justice system for low-level offences, including those for cannabis. For most young people, the harm of being brought into the criminal justice system will far outweigh the harms of having experimented with illicit substances.
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 notably in favour of youth referrals.
However, the overall numbers of people entering the justice system due to drug offences are still too high.
According to the Ministry of Justice data, in 2022, there was a total of 3,274 convictions for drug offences. Of those, the majority (56%) were for low-level drug possession or use offences. A large proportion of drug-related convictions (1,307) are related to cannabis.
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 over $1.9 billion 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|