Characteristics of amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) use in New Zealand: informing policy responses.

Author:Wilkins, Chris
Position::Research Papers


New Zealand has recently experienced dramatic increases in seizures of amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) drugs and detections of clandestine amphetamine laboratories. Secondary analysis of ATS drug use in New Zealand from the 2001 National Drug Survey highlighted the greater harms associated with frequent ATS use and identified potential risks associated with increased use of ATS, such as the spread of intravenous drug use and the increased demand for other "hard" drug types. Crystal methamphetamine users emerged as the ATS-using group with the highest levels of daily use, poly-drug use, intravenous drug use and opioid use. The findings suggest New Zealand drug treatment and law enforcement resources will be more effective when applied to frequent ATS and crystal methamphetamine users. The work also underlined the rationale for an indicator drug survey that can track changes in drug-use patterns, including levels of intravenous administration, within a time frame that allows effective agency responses before drug problems become entrenched. The Office of the Commissioner of New Zealand Police has already made progress in this direction.


Amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) are a group of synthetic illicit drug types which include methamphetamine, ecstasy and crystal methamphetamine (United Nations Drug Control Programme 2001). Over the last five years New Zealand has experienced dramatic increases in seizures of ATS drugs and detections of clandestine amphetamine laboratories (Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs 2002, New Zealand Customs Service 2002, Wilkins et al. 2002). Annual detections of amphetamine laboratories by New Zealand Police increased from just one in 1998 to over 200 in 2003 (New Zealand Police 2004). Border seizures of ecstasy made by the New Zealand Customs Service increased from less than 3,000 tablets in 1998 to 167,000 tablets in 2002 (New Zealand Customs Service 2002) and 260,000 tablets in 2003 (Barker 2004). The rise in the use of ATS drugs in New Zealand has been implicated in a range of social and public health problems including violent crime, mental illness, domestic violence, drug addiction, relationship breakdown, robbery, burglary and car conversion (Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs 2002, Wilkins and Rose et al. 2004, Wilkins and Reilly et al. 2004).

A useful distinction when fashioning a policy response to a drug is between occasional and frequent users of the drug. Frequent users are more likely to experience problems from their drug use, to be involved in the manufacture and sale of the drug, and to recruit others to drug use through example and social networking (Kleiman 1992).

An understanding of how key measures in the illicit market for a drug, such as price and availability, have changed can also inform policy response by signalling how demand and supply for a drug are likely to evolve in the near future. The price of a drug can also provide an indication of the socio-economic status of the user group and, in turn, the level and types of harms the drug may cause individuals and communities. For example, the social damage caused by cocaine increased considerably in the 1980s when it was repackaged and sold as the cheaper "crack" cocaine and so became financially accessible to urban poor (Kleiman 1992). Poor addicted crack users turned to property crime and robbery to finance their drug use, and the explosion in demand for crack fuelled violent confrontations between sellers over lucrative public selling locations (Kleiman 1992). Previously cocaine was sold in the expensive powder form and use was limited to affluent sectors of society, with little impact on crime and violence (Kleiman 1992).

The demographic characteristics and geographic location of a drug-using population can also inform the level and targeting of public resources dedicated to tackling a drug problem.

New Zealand Police sought an understanding of these features of ATS drug use in New Zealand to inform the response of Police and other agencies concerned with the ATS problem. New Zealand Police asked SHORE researchers to investigate the use patterns, conditions of supply and demographic features of the ATS-using population in New Zealand from the most recently available National Drug Survey data. This paper summarises the key findings from this work and discusses the implications for the policy response to ATS in New Zealand.


The 2001 National Drug Survey interviewed approximately 5,800 people aged 13-45 nationwide about their drug use, using a Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI) system. New Zealand has high levels of telephone coverage by international standards with over 96% of households having access to a connected landline telephone (Statistics New Zealand 2001, Wyllie et al. 1994). The response rate achieved in the 2001 National Drug Survey was 80%.

Three separate drug categories from the 2001 National Drug Survey were combined to make up the broader ATS category: amphetamines (also known as uppers, speed and methamphetamine), ecstasy (MDMA) and ice (crystal methamphetamine). (2)

Secondary analysis was completed for the combined ATS category and for the three separate drug types which make up the ATS category. Ice users were not asked the questions on harms, quantities used, and prices and availability. This was essentially because the current level of ice use was not considered high enough to justify the asking of additional questions concerning this drug. The focus of the analysis was last-year users of ATS drug types. Frequent users (i.e. those who had used an ATS drug six or more times in the last year) were compared to occasional users (i.e. those who had used less than six times in the last year) and to the wider population. Chi square tests were used to identify statistically significant differences between sub-groups of these user groups. All the differences reported are statistically significant at a 95% significance level.


Recent Prevalence of ATS Drug Use

Six per cent of New Zealanders aged 13-45 years had used an ATS drug in the last year, the population equivalent of 114,000 people. (3) By ATS drug type, 5% had used amphetamine in the last year (90,000 people), 3% had used ecstasy in the last year (62,000), and 1% had used ice in the last year (16,000). Just over 1% of New Zealanders were frequent ATS drug users (25,000). About two-thirds of last-year ATS users were male and about two-thirds of users were aged 18-29. Frequent ATS drug use was highest among 20-24-year-olds.

Self-Reported Harms from ATS Drug Use

Nearly one-third of last-year ecstasy and amphetamine users reported experiencing harm from their ATS use in the last year in at least one of seven areas of life asked about. The areas of life that ecstasy and amphetamine users most often reported harmed were "energy and vitality" (14% and 20% respectively), "financial position" (12% both), "health" (8% and 10%), "outlook on life" (8% and 6%) and "friendship and social life" (5% and 7%). Just over half of frequent ecstasy and amphetamine users reported experiencing harm in at least one of the seven...

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