Drug trafficking has become one of Italy's fastest growing ''industries.'' The turnover from the illegal importing, brokering, refining, and selling of drugs has reached an estimated $7 billion. A recent government-sponsored survey shows that Italy holds first place in Europe for the amount of police-confiscated drugs.
What is more, Italy, which was once a country through which drugs passed on their way to Northern Europe and the United States, has itself become a major drug consumer. Some 300,000 Italians are users of heavy drugs, researchers say.
Italy's first recorded death from drug abuse was in 1973. Ten years later the figure has risen alarmingly to 257.
Faced with this threat, this country's authorities are embarking on an all-out attempt to counter the invidious hold that drugs have taken on Italian society.
An inkling of the volume of drug traffic passing through Italy is given by a recent government-sponsored survey that shows Italian police confiscated 313 kilos of heroin in 1983 and 223 kilos of cocaine. So far this year the haul has been 121 kilos of heroin, 29 of cocaine, and 1,624 of cannabis.
Concerted high-level efforts have resulted in the setting up of a national coordination antidrug control committee presided over by Prime Minister Bettino Craxi as well as a bilateral coordination committee between Italian narcotic police forces under the guidance of Interior Minister Oscar Scalfaro and US narcotic specialist forces of the CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration, and FBI under Attorney General William French Smith to combat international, organized crime-controlled drug trafficking.
The Italian Interior Ministry also collects data and trains an antidrug police force under the direction of Alfredo Sabotino. Although Mr. Sabotino acknowledges the need in the United States for a DEA type of operation, he says an equivalent organization in Italy would serve only to confuse and hinder the operations of Italy's already existing three police forces. These are the paramilitary police force, the public security police force, and the customs and finance police.
Italian efforts to crack down on drug traffic thus use newly formed narcotic specialist groups within already existing police organizations. Italy's determination to work with the US in fighting drug distribution and organized crime was confirmed this spring when Interior Minister Scalfaro went to the US to set up the bilateral drug control committee.
Over the last few years Italian police operations have been bringing in ever-increasing drug hauls. They have also closed down some 14 heroin refining laboratories in Sicily alone.
A couple of years ago some 80 percent of the heroin sold in the Northeast US was identified as the high-quality white powder produced by Sicilian Mafia labs. Now it is down to 60 percent and the quality has fallen off. There is evidence that the Mafia is using its power of diversification of locations and employees in heroin refining to the full. Much of the Mafia market heroin is now refined in the harvesting area of Asian countries.
Traffickers are forced to resort to more inventive ways of carrying goods through the once-easy route of Italian airports. In early June, Rome airport police found 35 kilos of refined heroin hidden inside 14 vacuum flasks to escape the specially trained narcotic-sniffing police dogs permanently on duty at the airport. The seven couriers they arrested were Thais, part of a tourist group en route from Bangkok to Northern Europe.
On the legal side drug traffickers have been serving disparate sentences. Until now the law determined that those found by police to be holding a ''modest quantity'' of drugs for personal use were sentenced at the discretion of the presiding magistrate. No fixed limit was given to the ''modest quantity'' allowed.
But parliament is discussing a draft law that would put a quantitative limit on this quantity. Also, those found in possession of drugs would have to show a bona fide medical certificate showing they are registered in a rehabilitation program.
Convinced that international coop-eration is the only way to curb drug traffic, Italian authorities have pledged their help in every aspect of drug control. The arrest in Spain earlier this year of Mafia boss Gaetano Badalementi , who is suspected of trying to set up a new European drug distribution platform , involved the police of five countries, and Italy played a major role.
Italy has contributed some $40 million to the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control toward the eradication of cocaine traffic from South America. Italy is also running police training programs in Bolivia whose task is to supervise the switch from growing coca bushes to other crops.
Extradition laws between Italy and the US have just been ratified to allow prisoners, witnesses, and evidence to be freely exchanged between the two countries. These laws are expected to clear away bureaucratic obstacles to law enforcement cooperation between the two countries.
The most complex and unfathomable aspect of the drug trade is the process by which millions of dollars disappear into untraceable bank accounts or industrial and real estate deals.
Late last year a police raid temporarily closed down Italy's four legalized gambling casinos in Venice, St. Vincent, Sanremo, and Campione d'Italia (in the Italian canton of Switzerland). All were near northern Italian borders and all were discovered to be laundering Mafia funds.
On June 1 the governor of the Bank of Italy, Carlo Ciampi, in his report on the state of the economy promised help from Italian banks. He pledged use of their ''technical knowledge and professional resources'' in tracing Mafia infiltrations in banking systems.
Other areas of society are becoming aware that drugs are here to stay unless there is firm opposition. Italian rehabilitation centers now number about 450.
Although the numbers of addicts between the ages of 14 and 30 are increasing, so are the numbers of those who seek professional help. Awareness of the problem has even reached the poorer suburbs of the two main ''drug capitals,'' Rome and Milan. A group of mothers in a suburb of Rome are tired of watching their children become slaves to local traffickers.
The women have become a sort of anonymous group of informers: They send names and addresses of local dealers to a post office number put at their disposal by police. So far they have helped put some 50 small dealers under arrest.