This story was first published January 20, 2023. It was republished on July 23, 2023.

The first time Marc did a spot he was 14. He’d walked into a friend’s kitchen and saw someone huddled over a stove. 

Confused, he asked the person what they were up to. 

“I’m doing some dots, bro. Do you want one?” the guy replied - an offer Marc couldn’t refuse. 

What is a spot?

Spots, dots, hot knives, whatever you want to call them, is a method of heating knives on a stove to smoke cannabis.

Because cannabis is an illicit class C drug in New Zealand, spots are illegal. The possession of blackened knives that have been previously used for spotting is considered "possession of paraphernalia" and is illegal under New Zealand law.

If someone is convicted of possession or using cannabis the maximum penalty is three months in jail or a $500 fine. 

Thinking back to when he was 14, Marc, who wanted to remain anonymous in this story to protect his privacy, says the moment felt like its own unique version of Kiwi hospitality.

“You know, welcome, welcome, here’s a spot, and let’s go from there,” he laughs.

“That was pretty much how it started, you just get introduced to it randomly one day. All I remember is that it hurt my lungs so much.”

Smoking cannabis has been linked to higher rates of airway inflammatory changes, such as bronchiectasis and bronchial wall thickening - where extra mucus trapped in the lungs can cause infections and make it difficult to breathe. 

Cannabis use can also lead to dependence. One study estimated people who use cannabis have about a 10% likelihood of becoming addicted.

New Zealand: the land of sheep and spots

There is very little research on the prevalence of spots around the world but one 1997 survey of regular United Kingdom cannabis users found only 1.3% of users did “hot knives”, down from 5.2% in 1984.

University of Otago respiratory specialist Professor Bob Hancox says he had no idea what spots were or how popular they are in New Zealand until he recently interviewed people in the Dunedin study about their cannabis use.

The study follows the lives of 1037 people who were born in Dunedin 50 years ago. 

“When we last saw the participants we asked them how they took their cannabis and spots came up quite a bit,” he says.

Of the 143 people who said they had used cannabis at least six times in the previous year at age 45, 137 reported how they used it. 

Most people smoked joints (61%) and/or a pipe or bong (42%) but 9% said they used spots - alongside a combination of the other smoking methods. Only two reported ingesting cannabis and one said they used a weed vape.

“While it’s a less popular option, we learnt that a decent number of people in New Zealand still use spots. It definitely seems to be a lot more common here than in other places.”

New Zealand’s love of spots is lost on other countries

The unique popularity of spots in Aotearoa was spotlighted when a spot kit was mentioned as one of the nostalgia-based prize packs on TaskMaster New Zealand and foreigners on Reddit were beyond confused. 

“What is a ‘SPOT’?” one person wrote.

“Stupid American watching NZ TV and lost in a cultural reference,” another said.

This confusion happened again when a photo of two friends from Napier with matching tattoos of knives being heated up on a coil stovetop went viral.

“Will someone please explain what this means?” one person from Kentucky commented.

“What’s this even supposed to mean?” another person said.

New Zealanders were quick to point out that spots are a long-standing method of smoking cannabis here in Aotearoa. But why?

Why spots are uniquely popular in New Zealand

Journalist Russell Brown, who has written and produced podcasts on New Zealand’s relationship with weed, says in the 1980s New Zealand’s weed was “pretty average” a lot of the time. 

“You got something special if you got any actual flower, as opposed to what was euphemistically called ‘leaf and tips’. 

“So back then good weed was more valuable and spots were considered a more economical way of smoking it.”

Russell says this ‘conserve the weed’ mentality hangs on in student flats or in places where people can’t afford to burn through their weed with traditional methods like joints that leave a lot of THC behind. 

“It also appeals to the New Zealand DIY spirit,” Russell says. 

Repurposing household items to do spots is a “very New Zealand thing to do,” he says.

“There is a long history of this DIY spirit when it comes to New Zealanders getting high.

“When liquor laws were much more strict, people started making beer in the bathtub. Post Mr. Asia [one of New Zealand’s largest drug rings] opioids got scarce and New Zealanders worked out a way to make a heroin substitute from codeine and morphine which was called ‘home bake’. 

“We’re incredibly ingenious people when it comes to getting high,” he says.

Spots were part of growing up

Marc’s friends, Connor and Steve - who also wanted to be anonymous in this story for privacy reasons - say spots were a coming-of-age way to smoke weed when you didn’t have many other options available to you.

“We were too young to buy a bong in a store,” Steve says.

“We were too young to know how to roll a joint, we didn’t even have a grinder at this point we would just roll up little nugs.”

“But everyone has a couple of knives and a stove.”

The friends, who are in their mid-twenties now, say they would do spots as teenagers because they had to stretch whatever money they had as far as they possibly could.

“Before we had proper jobs, money wasn't easy to come by,” Marc says.

“The boys would all be chipping in for a tinnie and trying anything we could to make it last - and spots are the best way.”

Spots produce strong hits using minimal cannabis because the weed is not being directly burned with a flame, unlike other traditional ways of smoking.

Because cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are not being burned, fewer cannabinoids are lost in the process making the smoke more potent. 

Growing out of spots

Connor says now that he and his friends are not as stingy with how much they spend on weed they’ve moved onto smoking joints and bongs. 

“It hasn’t really crossed my mind recently because there are definitely much nicer ways of smoking weed.”

Thinking back, Russell says he stopped doing spots because sometime in your 30s you start valuing your cutlery a lot more.

“In theory, there are two special spotting knives but what would inevitably happen is every knife in the draw was at risk of being ruined. Your parents would come round to the flat and ask where all the knives went. At some point, you realise it’s time to move on.”

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