GROWING quantities of prescription drugs meant for medical use are being diverted to the world's illegal drug trade.
In a new annual report on the world drug situation released today, the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) says the pharmaceuticals, mainly tranquilizers, are particularly dangerous when used with heroin and cocaine, are highly profitable for drug traffickers, and are not adequately policed.
''There are weak export controls on these kinds of drugs,'' insists INCB Secretary Herbert Schaepe in a phone interview from the Board's Vienna headquarters.
The INCB cites this relatively new phenomenon as one more example of just how adept drug traffickers are in devising new schemes and shifting drug production and transit areas as they try to stay ahead of the law.
In the Caribbean, for instance, the Netherlands Antilles is emerging as an important new transit route for South American cocaine headed for the United States and Europe.
The Cali cartel in Colombia has gained strength since Medellin cartel chief Pablo Escobar Gaviria was killed in late 1993.
In Asia, the Board says, Vietnam is becoming a key new transit route for heroin from Burma (also called Myanmar), Laos, and Thailand. Rising cocaine use in South Korea and Japan suggests new targeting by Latin cartels, says the INCB.
The Board's report says that drug abuse and trafficking are increasingly sophisticated and global. More countries should sign, ratify, and act on the three major drug-control treaties, says the INCB. Two are aimed at stemming the flow of narcotics and psychotropic substances, such as barbiturates and tranquilizers. The third is designed to prevent the laundering of money from illicit trafficking.
ONE goal of the latter treaty is to monitor the movement of chemicals used to produce illegal drugs. Yet the INCB report notes that the diversion and smuggling of such precursor materials to secret drug labs is increasing, and that drug criminals are exploiting the failure of many countries to watch and report such trade.
''By monitoring the movement of these precursors you can find out who is illicitly manufacturing drugs and get to the trafficking groups,'' says the INCB's Mr. Schaepe.
The report notes that 14 African nations have not signed any of the three major drug treaties. Several countries with major pharmaceutical manufacturers, including Austria, Belgium, and Switzerland, have never ratified the psychotropic drug convention of 1971. Canada and New Zealand have ratified it, but have not yet implemented import and export controls of such drugs, and are in violation of the treaty, says the INCB.
''The message of the report is that if governments would stick to the provisions of the conventions [treaties] and implement them universally, we would have far fewer problems,'' says Schaepe.