The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 needs to go part 1: How it started

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With the general election happening in a matter of days, we thought a discussion on our drug legislation was in order. We have the opportunity to make some real progressive change in terms of the laws surrounding drugs, drug use, and the people that take drugs. So let’s take a look at the current legislation, where it came from, and a few things we think can change.

This is a pretty massive piece of work, so we’ve chunked it out into 4 posts:
How it started – The early history. What Aotearoa’s first drug laws were and the prohibition era
The War on People – The War on Drugs and some excessive USA-driven, UN-enforced douchebaggery
How it’s going – Current problems caused by the Misuse of Drugs Act (MoDA) 1975, and how Aotearoa’s laws compare with overseas legislations.
How we hope it’ll go in the future – We let our volunteers whose day jobs are in policy, law, and criminology loose and ask for recommendations.

In the beginning…

CW there’s some seriously racist bs in this.

Aotearoa’s first attempt at controlling substances was in response to Britain clamping down on common over-the-counter mixtures like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which was marketed to mothers to calm their babies while they were teething. Unfortunately the level of opium in Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was about 10 times the recommended amount for infants. Thousands of children died of either overdose or opium withdrawal in the US and British colonies.

This led to Aotearoa introducing the Sale of Poisons Act 1866, which prevented people aged under 17 from buying arsenic or strychnine, and meant opioid-based substances like laudanum had to be labelled as poison. Also, anyone selling these things to the public had to be registered.
Seems fair enough, right? Keep in mind there wasn’t any kind of regulation back then so people were selling all kinds of bonkers stuff as ‘medicine’ without thought to what the side effects were.

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Why yes doctor, smoking cigarettes made of arsenic will absolutely fix my asthma. Source: Merck’s 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica

But then things got really racist…

It wouldn’t be a drug law without a little racism, right? In the late 1800s a dramatic upswing in opium consumption arrived with the Chinese gold miners. By this time the Temperance movement was in full swing, and drugs, alcohol, and sex for anything other than making babies was deeply frowned upon. Opium-smoking was viewed as morally degenerate.

The Opium Prohibition Act 1901 was put in place to control the amount of smokable opium being imported by requiring all importers to have a permit. It also made opium illegal to smoke. Sounds like a standard drug control law, right?

But this Act also stated that Chinese people weren’t allowed to have permits. Section 8 gave police officers powers to go into someone’s house where they suspected people were smoking or selling opium if they had a warrant – except the cops didn’t need a warrant if the occupants were Chinese. Seems almost as if the lawmakers had a racial motivation for these “standard” drug control laws.

There was nothing unusual in this at the time. At around the same time in the United States, the widespread unregulated use of opium and cocaine preparations were leading to dependency and increases in crime. Despite much of this use being among Civil War veterans, the main focus of public information was around “The Negro Cocaine Fiend” – a myth that claimed African American men who had taken cocaine were uniquely murderous and rapacious, going around committing violence on the innocent without provocation. According to the myth, these men were also unstoppable with normal bullets.

The myth, while entirely untrue, provided a convenient “justification” for lynchings in the Southern states after the abolishment of slavery. It also provided much needed public support for the introduction of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act 1914, the US’s first ever drug law.

By the 1920s, Temperance was the order of the day with alcohol prohibition in force, and Aotearoa introduced its own version of the Harrison Act – The Dangerous Drugs Act 1927, which was Aotearoa’s first ever controlled drugs schedule. This roped in all of the different types of opioid preparations and all of the different cocaine preparations, as well as cannabis. Except they didn’t call it cannabis, they called it “Indian hemp”. Indian hemp is the common name for at least 7 different types of plants that can be made into fibre, only two of which are psychoactive. But they all got banned, because danger. Or something.

And while these Acts were amended a few times over the years, none of the amendments removed the warrantless searches of the homes of Chinese people. It’s pretty obvious that even though on the surface the intent of these laws was the public good, all of them had seriously racist undertones that were at best acceptable to the lawmakers of the day, and at worst absolutely a vehicle for the marginalisation of “the morally degenerate drug user” (who also happened to be African American or Chinese).

19th Century opium pipes and kit

We should probably note that in the sixty or so years between the Sale of Poisons Act and the Dangerous Drugs Act, drug-related harms like overdose and addiction weren’t reduced at all. It’s almost like banning things didn’t stop them from being harmful…

Read more about drug taking in early colonial history on the Te Ara website

Oh but it gets better! (No, no it doesn’t)

Most people are familiar with the Prohibition Era, in which alcohol was banned in the US with disastrous results.
Side effects of prohibition included a massive increase in organised crime and violence, deaths from overly-potent unregulated brews, and massive public civil disobedience in which they carried on using their drug of choice till the government gave up and repealed the legislation in 1933. This information is readily available so we won’t go into the details here. Aotearoa didn’t ever have full prohibition by the way, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

We are lowkey curious about whether or not, 100 years from now, people will glamourise current drug prohibition the same way we glamourise 1920s prohibition and bootlegging…

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Speakeasy-style cocktail bars, but make it drugs.

So what does American Prohibition have to do with Aotearoa’s drug laws? Well, you’d think governments would have learned something from the failure of Prohibition, right?


When Prohibition ended in the US in December 1933, the top job at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – which included the Department of Prohibition – was held by Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger needed to find something to ensure the continued relevance of his Bureau, and he landed on cannabis. Only he used the Mexican term for it – ‘marijuana’.

CW this next bit is super freaking racist.

He launched an all-out campaign to demonise the drug – and he made sure to appeal to racist tropes as much as he possibly could. He is quoted as saying:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

He is also credited with the harassment and ultimately the death of jazz singer Billie Holliday, but that’s a whole other story, which you can read in Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream. Warning – reading this will make you lose your faith in humanity and also want to punch things.

Anslinger was on a moral crusade, openly using demonisation of a drug to target, arrest, harass, and marginalise specific groups of people based on race. And people bought it. The 1937 film Reefer Madness was a direct result of his work. Nowadays we think the film’s quaint and hilarious, but at the time people genuinely believed that cannabis was “a deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms.”

Conveniently, this targeting also kept Anslinger and his team in jobs, with bigger and bigger budgets. He was very successful, and his success had an impact across the world, including here in Aotearoa.

Fast forward to the 1960s

CW: More racism. Just…ugggggh so much racism…

In 1961 the UN released the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This Convention put in place a single set of rules about drugs that the whole world could follow, instead of having a massive bunch of different international treaties from different countries with their different definitions of what a drug was, if it was legitimate in a medicinal setting or not, what kind of laws it broke, and what levels of harm it was perceived to have. One set of rules for everyone would make it easier to police trafficking and production.

“Resolution II: Assistance In Narcotics Control
1. Declares that, to be more effective, the measures taken against drug abuse must be coordinated and universal;

2. Declares further that the fulfilment by the developing countries of their obligations under the Convention will be facilitated by adequate technical and financial assistance from the international community.”

Sounds sensible, right? If everyone in the world has the same definition of what cannabis is and why it’s on the Naughty List, national authorities can chase the growers and manufacturers, Interpol can chase the traffickers, and local police can chase the distributors. All one big happy family reading from the same script. Yay.

Until you find out that Harry J. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men” Anslinger had been working on pulling together international drug laws since his appointment, had published a book called The Traffic in Narcotics in 1953, and was deeply involved in the development of the principles behind the conventions.

We don’t know about you but we think this guy’s motivations were deeply suspect at best, and openly racist at worst. Any laws based on his principles should be given a major side-eye.

Anyway, the Conventions created a basis for international co-operation on enforcement of drug prohibition. These were admittedly super vague and were open to interpretation. What wasn’t open to interpretation, however, was that the global attitude towards drugs was that they were bad, mmmkay? And if your country couldn’t police its narcotics then the UN member countries would come and help you do that. And by ‘help’, they absolutely mean ‘make’.

The Convention also created the schedules of drugs that form the basis of our current classification systems.

Schedules/Classes of drugs

The severity of drugs had to be universally agreed on for those measures against drug abuse to be put in force, so the rankings of drugs began. The schedules of drugs created in 1961 are mainly based on:

  1. Whether or not the drug has potential in medicine, and
  2. The potential for “abuse”. Note: By abuse they didn’t just mean dependency/addiction, they were also targeting recreational use – the thinking being that any unsanctioned use is “abuse.”

Schedule 1 drugs were seen as having a high risk of abuse. Drugs that the 1961 Convention listed as Schedule 1 are:

  • Cocaine
  • Fentanyl
  • Opium
  • Morphine
  • Cannabis resins, oils, and tinctures
  • Heroin

Guess whose idea it was to add cannabis to Schedule 1. (Hint: They’re a super racist American)

Schedule 2 drugs had less of a risk of abuse than the drugs in Schedule 1. This is quite a short list, but includes prescription painkillers like codeine and its analogues.

Schedule 3 drugs have a moderate to low abuse risk. The Schedule 3 list in the 1961 Convention is essentially all of the precursor ingredients to make other drugs like cocaine and codeine.

Also in the high-risk category is Schedule 4, which are the high risk substances that (allegedly) had no medicinal value to offset the abuse potential. These drugs include

  • Cannabis resins, oils, and tinctures
  • Heroin

Yeah. We made that face too because one of these things is absolutely not like the other. We’d really love to see the research that went into putting these schedules together, but we suspect there wasn’t any.

Read more about the Schedules and how they were defined in Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies No. 25

Other fun things the 1961 Convention included are:

  • A requirement for member countries to report on how many people are taking opium for medicinal purposes, how much that country has stocked up for release to doctors, chemists etc, and how much opium that country is making or importing.
  • A ban on any country growing opium poppies, coca leaves, or cannabis plants if there’s a risk of those plants being used for the illicit market. Which means if you’re a country that grows opium poppies for medicinal manufacture, but you have the possibility of an illicit market, you’re lowkey screwed.
  • An allowance for “more drastic” measures to be taken against anyone caught importing drugs through a free (untaxed) port than if they were using a taxed port.

All of which impact more unfairly on countries with (for example) traditional opium or coca production, in the name of preventing people not in these countries from using them. Have a guess which countries are growers and which countries tend to have the highest use? *ahem*

Anyway, Aotearoa as a member of the UN, signed on with this. The result was the Narcotics Act 1965, which amongst other things put the kybosh on medical cannabis – a move we’ve not yet managed to properly recover from. However, at the time drug law was mostly the realm of governments and most law-abiding people either didn’t know or didn’t care. But then the 60’s counterculture happened, and things cranked up a notch.

Our next blog discusses the 1960s counterculture movement, the War on Drugs, and how our Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 was formed on a whole bunch of racist garbage.

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