A backstage struggle is being waged at the United Nations to bring a range of widely abused depressant drugs under international control. The next turning point comes during February 1984.
The struggle symbolizes the difficulties in tying down international laws to regulate drugs that make large profits for manufacturers in some developed countries. It also shows how different interests compete behind the scenes at the UN.
The drugs are called benzo-diazepines and include Valium and Librium, both of which are controlled in the US, but not in most other countries.
On one side are the World Health Organization, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and a large number of third-world countries whose diplomats say a deluge of the drugs, aggressively marketed and illicitly sold, comes across their borders. Officials lack the expertise and the data needed to monitor them. They complain that abuse of the drugs is causing traffic accidents and addiction problems in their countries.
They and the two UN bodies insist there is enough risk of abuse to include the drugs in schedule four of the 1971 convention on so-called psychotropic substances. This would require licenses to make, trade, and distribute the drugs and permit prohibition of imports.
Schedule four is the weakest form of regulation in the convention. It requires no medical prescriptions, no statistical reports on new trends or on sources or methods of trafficking.
Opposing UN action are a number of drug companies and groups in Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Panama, and the United Kingdom. These countries voted against resolutions in favor of control at the 1983 meeting in Vienna.
In the US, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA) speaks for 149 member companies in opposing procedures involved in including benzo-diazepines in the 1971 convention. The PMA says that such procedures are unfair, denying companies enough opportunity to defend their own positions.
Jay Kingham, international vice-president of the PMA, said in a report to the Food and Drug Administration, ''In seeking to minimize abuse of a medically important drug, regulatory bodies must be careful not to interfere unduly with proper therapeutic use of that drug. . . .''
The battle is about to be fought all over again at the next session of UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in February. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) favors bringing the drugs under control to help reduce smuggling.
The DEA and other law enforcement bodies in other countries want all the tools they can get to cut back illegal flows of ingredients such as Valium, which is turning up in counterfeit Quaalude tablets.
Drugs can be included in the 1971 international convention only on a two-thirds majority vote. At the last meeting, that meant 20 votes out of a commission membership of 30. None of the new drugs received more than 17 votes.
Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, and Panama voted against including Librium as a controlled substance. The UK, Spain, and Japan abstained, as did Colombia and others. The USSR voted in favor of control.
Those opposed argued that the drugs had legitimate medical uses and that control would represent unacceptable administrative red tape.
The next meeting will require 27 out of an enlarged membership of 40.
A senior UN official said privately: ''The companies oppose control because there are such big profits in depressant drugs. They feel the third world shouldn't be deprived of the privilege of buying them. . . .''
Jeffrey Warren of the PMA in Washington made the case for the drug industry: Drug companies had the right to compete against one another and to put out the best drugs they could. Such competition was part of the freedom to do business and should not be unduly restricted.