New Zealand has one of the highest proportions of ecstasy and amphetamine abusers in the world a United Nations survey has found.
The global survey, the first of its type by the UN, said New Zealand and Australia were second only to Thailand on methamphetamine abuse.
It was reported 3.7 per cent of the population of both countries abused the drug.
Australia was also a world leader on ectacsy abuse, with 2.9 per cent of its population abusing the drug.
New Zealand was not far behind on 2.3 per cent.
The drugs are regarded as a health hazard, causing loss of memory, premature decline of other mental facilities and are linked to serious crime.
New Zealand figures could be even worse than the UN reported, Massey University researcher Chris Wilkins told National Radio.
The survey was based on 2001 figures, he said.
The numbers of clandestine labs found by police, recent drug seizures and arrests suggested the use of drugs may have increased since then, he said.
The Ecstasy and Amphetamines Global Survey 2003 said almost all countries reported a strong concentration of abuse of the drugs among young people, particularly in dance and club settings.
More than 40 million people around the world, or one in every 100 people aged 15 and older, used amphetamine-like substances in 2000-2001, the report said.
It found that the use of such stimulants was concentrated among 18 to 20 year-olds.
The drugs were wrongly "perceived as less harmful than other illicit substances, like heroin and cocaine".
"The danger posed by synthetic drugs is already real and is advancing relentlessly," the report concluded.
The problem of amphetamine-type stimulants in Australia was characterised by high levels of abuse and was "serious and growing", it warned.
The report, by the Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said local production of methamphetamine tablets in Australasia was increasing.
It said the drugs were manufactured locally using pseudoephedrine as a chemical precursor -- either bought or stolen from retail outlets or taken from chemical factories, warehouses and factory yards.
"The relatively closed market appears to have disguised the specific nature and extent of the problem for some time," the report said.
However, domestic manufacture of ecstasy was limited. The drugs were mainly imported from Europe, South-East Asia and China.
Imported tablets were often ground up, diluted and resold and were of dubious and inconsistent quality.
Fake ecstasy -- with logos to make the tabs look authentic -- was also being produced locally using ingredients like ketamine, paracetamol and caffeine, the report said.
The Australasian figures reflect a worldwide trend, with the global use of ecstasy estimated to have risen by 70 per cent between 1995-1997 and 2000-2001, while use of amphetamines rose by 40 per cent in the same period.
Worldwide production of amphetamine-like stimulants was estimated at 500 tonnes a year, with seizures rising from four tonnes in 1990/91 to just under 40 tonnes in 2000/01.
Tim Harding, a specialist in drug and alcohol dependence, told National Radio he was not surprised by the figures.
Treatment facilities had told him that five years ago it was rare to see abusers of the drugs.
Now a small percentage were being seen, though alcohol and cannabis had higher numbers of abusers.
Dr Wilkins said methampethamine used in New Zealand was manufactured locally, whereas ecstasy was nearly always imported from Western Europe or Southeast Asia.
Mr Harding said people who used the drugs might not initially suffer adverse affects, but the consequences of continued use were "quite severe".
"When people are young and they are using drugs it's not usually the long-term effects of them that they are actually thinking about, it's the immediate effects and the fun they're going to have with them.
"That's the problem."
Mr Harding said there had to be greater public awareness of the dangers of the drugs, as well as policing it more heavily.
Those who import, manufacture or supply methamphetamine face life imprisonment after legislation passed in Parliament this year moved it from a class B drug to class A.
Drugs are classified according to their risk of harm to the public, with those deemed the most dangerous given a class A classification.
Crime statistics released in March showed a 28.4 per cent increase in drug crimes involving amphetamine-type stimulants, largely due to a rise in local production and distribution.
Penalties were increased to a maximum of life imprisonment for importation, manufacture or supply.
Possession could result in a prison sentence of up to six months, a $1000 fine, or both.
However, Dr Wilkins said it was possible New Zealand's figures and world ranking had been distorted in the UN report.
"New Zealand seems to be tacked on to Australia -- but New Zealand data is not referenced," he told NZPA.
'I got the impression they might have just talked to someone in Australia who said 'this is New Zealand's data'...so there may be some problems there."
While Australia surveyed people over the age of 14, and the UN used data for people up to 65, New Zealand's data was only taken from people aged 15-45.
That would make New Zealand's percentage figure look higher, but if the older age group was added, it would lower the figure, Dr Wilkins said.
Dr Wilkins and his team at Massey University have produced New Zealand's two national drugs surveys.
The next national survey, due out early next year, would include figures on 15 to 65-year-olds, to bring the data on to a par with other countries.
Dr Wilkins said New Zealand should not be alarmed by the UN report, but take a "measured and well-informed" approach.
"People talk about the rates of amphetamine and ecstasy doubling in New Zealand, but it has doubled from just something like 1.5 per cent -- even though New Zealand and Australia might be leading in terms of prevalence rates, it's still a very low level.
"If you compare amphetamine and ecstasy use with cannabis use, alcohol use and tobacco use, it's nowhere near those rates," he said.
Herald Feature: The P epidemic