High & Dry July: Alcohol is NZ’s most harmful drug; UN experts call for decriminalisation


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High & Dry July: Alcohol named as New Zealand’s most harmful drug

In the “No Surprise Dept”, and just in time for Dry July: the drug associated with the most harm in New Zealand is not meth, cannabis or opiates, but alcohol. That’s according to a new study from Otago University published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Coverage on Stuff said while there have been other studies around the world that have evaluated and ranked psychoactive drug harms, it’s believed this is the first in New Zealand, and the first to include harms for youth.

While The Daily Mail said ‘the results will shock you’, the local Stuff report said the findings will “surprise some”.

The study co-author, Dr Rose Crossin​ from Otago’s Department of Population Health, said “It might challenge people to learn this, but alcohol isn’t the most harmful because it’s the most widely used drug in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s rated the most harmful because of its association with a huge number of diseases, cancers, psychological disorders and other medical conditions.” It also causes more harm to others than to those who use it, including families, friends, communities and wider society.

In this study, alcohol was again ranked the most harmful, ahead of meth, synthetic cannabinoids and then tobacco. Cannabis was ranked at nine, rather strangely sandwiched between prescription opioids and “solvents & fuels”. The least harmful were kava, LSD and nitrous.

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One News reported the study, funded by the Health Research Council, involved the panel assigning a score to 23 drugs based on harm to the user, harm to others as well as societal harm. This included drug-related mortality, drug-related damage, dependence, injury to others, crime, community damage and economic cost.

The expert panel used the framework developed by UK Prof David Nutt, which made global headlines in 2010 by also ranking alcohol ‘more harmful than heroin’.

The study coincided with a change of stance by the NZ Heart Foundation, who had previously said small amounts of alcohol were beneficial for health but now concede that is a myth and ‘no amount’ is healthy. They last reviewed their advice in 2013 but this is something we’ve been calling out for years.

The booze lobby insinuates alcohol has health benefits akin to working out or eating well. But the antioxidants in red wine are less than what is in cannabis, and the increased heart rate from a drink is only equivalent to climbing two or three stairs. The substance itself is toxic to every cell and damages your DNA – so it’s no surprise alcohol is now ranked our most harmful drug.

None of this is an argument to ban alcohol. We all know the folly of prohibition – and the more harmful a substance, the more it should be regulated and controlled.

Co-author Professor Joe Boden​ said the findings identify a mismatch between legal status and harm. Some Class A drugs may cause a lot of harm but others “very little”.

Boden also said the study showed a significant proportion of drug harm arises from the legal status of the drug, rather from the drug itself. This included harms to the user, such as loss of employment and relationships, along with harms to others, suggesting “we need to reconsider our policy settings to reduce overall drug harm.”

UN experts call for decriminalisation

The UN’s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking has traditionally been marked by public executions of drug suppliers and even consumers in countries such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But for this year’s occasion last Friday, the UN Human Rights Commission issued a statement calling for the end of the global war on drugs and decriminalisation of use and possession.

“The ‘war on drugs’ may be understood to a significant extent as a war on people. Its impact has been greatest on those who live in poverty, and it frequently overlaps with discrimination directed at marginalised groups, minorities and Indigenous Peoples.”

Action on overdoses needed

Here in Aotearoa the occasion was recognised as Support, Don’t Punish Day, with the New Zealand Drug Foundation calling for urgent action to prevent drug overdose deaths.

Newshub reported the rate is going up, with 171 deaths in 2021 compared to 111 in 2017. Most are linked to opioids. Every death is a tragedy – and could have been prevented.

The foundation’s plan includes establishing an Overdose Prevention Centre pilot in Tāmaki Makaurau; establishing “a model for supervised consumption”; engaging meaningfully with communities of people who use drugs; wider provision of naloxone, and:

“Repeal the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 and replace it with a policy that decriminalises personal use and establishes an evidence-based framework for regulating other substances in a risk-proportionate manner.”

Quick hits

Al-Jazeera reports Thailand’s cannabis lovers face comedown amid legalisation U-turn. Thailand legalised cannabis last year, with more than 1000 dispensaries now in Bangkok alone. But in last month’s general election the former opposition party, Pita Limjaroenrat’s Move Forward Party (MFP), got the most votes.

While the MFP are viewed as the most liberal party they also have vowed to rein in recreational use and restrict the country’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry to medical only. But to form a governing coalition Pita still needs the support of the former Minister of Health, Anutin Charnvirakul, who oversaw the law change and has refused to support any government seeking to roll back his laws.

Ranked among the least harmful, Kava is now being studied as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Te Ao Maori News reports University of Waikato researchers Dr Apo Aporosa and Dr Sione Vaka will co-lead a study to assess the efficacy of kava when consumed alongside talanoa, the open and respectful dialogue that accompanies kava drinking in formal and informal settings.

Clinical trials of the ‘Pacific prescription’, supported by a grant from the Health Research Council, will initially focus on first responders, corrections staff and military personnel who have seen combat. Aporosa, a former police officer turned academic, told the NZ Herald “It’s likely we’re going to spend a million dollars to prove what traditional Pacific knowledge has been trying to tell Europeans for the last 200 years.”

Glasto last weekend and shout out to Fatboy Slim for using the stage to back festival drug testing there. The musician and a cross party group of UK MPs say the Home Office’s decision to effectively ban onsite pill testing puts festivalgoers at risk.

That’s not such an issue here in Aotearoa New Zealand, where substance testing is legal and licensed by the Ministry of Health. There are still issues – the lack of capacity for testing herbal substances such as cannabis and medicinal extracts and preparations, and they don’t allow mail order services for rural and regional communities – but we’ve currently got the world’s best approach, and we’re stoked to be hosting another testing clinic at The Hempstore next Thursday.

Coming up

  • Substance Testing @ The Hemp Store Thursday 6 July, 3-7pm, thanks to the NZ Drug Foundation.
  • Matariki on K Road, Thursday 13 July. Live music and terpene tastings at The Hempstore.
  • Auckland J Day (Postponed from May) Saturday 2nd December, plus look out for NORML’s rallies and events prior to the election.


Marijuana Media airs every Thursday at 4:20pm on 95bFM, with your hosts bFM Drive’s Jonny and Chris Fowlie from The Hempstore. Stream or download the pot-cast for this show here or hundreds of previous Marijuana Media shows at 95bFM.com (or via iTunes / RSS feed). Thanks to The Hemp Store!



  1. Chris – Cool bananas- the NZ alcohol industry know for a fact that if Cannabis is legal in NZ, they, the alcohol industry, would lose millions of $ in revenue…

  2. Speaking of addictions, I think I’m a scroll addict.
    Terrible Real Estate Agent Photographs
    Re drug addictions; do what you like so long as you don’t hurt anyone else ( other than one’s self which is likely inevitable.) .
    Decriminalise all drugs but specifically proper Ecstasy and you’ll see alcohol become unfashionable and vulgar overnight. Besides, booze cancels out the effects of E and I know which I’d prefer of an evenings socialising. The right mushrooms are similar. The wrong ones might kill you, so research, research, research.
    I find most Pot a bit Meh to be honest. I don’t always want to be the stupefied mumbler around the kitchen table eating butter with a knife, but that’s just me.
    ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Fat Freddy’s Cat. ‘
    If you can’t relate to these guys then you’re spiritually half cooked, socially isolated and emotionally under-developed. But worse, you’ll be straighter than a Mormon’s trouser creases.
    You’ll see here Phineas Freak returns home to visit his mum and dad in Houston, Texas. The problem is, as can be seen in the strip, that his father’s got a new job in public relations with the John Birch Society. “The John Birch Society is an American right-wing political advocacy group. Founded in 1958, it is anti-communist, supports social conservatism, and is associated with ultraconservative, radical right, far-right, or libertarian ideas.”
    Phineas has unknowingly taken Fat Freddy’s jar of pure LSD thinking it’s water for his journey and, of course, his father takes an innocent swig.
    The next few panels sees Phineas’s father come bursting through the door home from the office the next day covered in blood and wearing a First Nation People’s feathered headdress and carrying a hatchet. He’s also wearing the scalps of his John Birch Society’s members around his waist.
    I laughed so hard I nearly feinted.
    Gilbert Sheldon’s “ The Fabulous Furry Freak Brother’s and Fat Freddy’s Cat” should be regarded as a Global Treasure and a Life -Guide to the young and innocent.
    ( A detail worth pointing out. Doesn’t Phineas’s father look like Luxon before he swigged the LSD? )

  3. don’t forget dope can give you lung cancer…don’t see ‘smokefree’ jumping on that one too busy with the vaping moral panic.

  4. “…the drug associated with the most harm in New Zealand is not meth, cannabis or opiates, but alcohol.”

    Urgent! Someone needs to tell the mayor of Wellington.

  5. That referendum was trash. The defeat of it was a defeat for Labour in the end. No courage for truth. Scared fundamentally above everything.


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