ON Lubyanka Square, right by the gloomy gray building that serves as headquarters for the former KGB, a poorly dressed elderly woman on the sidewalk stops a prosperous-looking young man as he walks by. ''What do you want to buy, sonny?'' she asks with a smile, looking around uneasily.
In her bag, the babushka has all sorts of medicines that ordinarily require a prescription. Most of the drugs are classified in the Russian legal code as ''dangerous drugs.''
In Russia, ''the problem of drug abuse is no less urgent'' than the traditional and well-known alcohol-abuse crisis, according to a recent study by President Boris Yeltsin's Council on Social Policy. ''It has reached the proportions of a national calamity,'' the report warns.
Officials conservatively estimate that 1.5 million Russians regularly use narcotics - from cannabis (marijuana) to amphetamines and tranquilizers to homemade heroin.
That is 20 times the figure for the entire Soviet Union 10 years ago.
Despite this gloomy picture, many foreign experts are encouraging Russians not to lose this opportunity to fight drug use now while it is at a relatively earlier stage. ''We have not lost this moment yet. On our streets you won't find people high on drugs everywhere, as you used to find in the US,'' says Andrei Varfolomeyev, vice president of the International Association Against Drugs and Drug Trafficking, a nongovernmental organization here.
A missing ingredient in the fight against drugs is citizen involvement, says Col. Nikolai Osipov, acting head of the antidrug trafficking department of the Interior Ministry. ''I think law enforcement agencies are well ahead of everybody else'' in battling drugs, Colonel Osipov says.
''We're fighting as hard as we can, but we would be much more effective if the rest of the public were fighting with us,'' he says.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the official attitude toward drugs as a capitalist vice has disappeared. Drug use was legalized in 1991 - although possession or sale is still punishable by jail. Thus laws are hardly dissuasive.
New kinds of people are resorting to drugs, social researchers have found. Growing numbers of Russians are forsaking the bottle in favor of drugs as a way of escaping their problems - especially lack of money. At the other extreme, many of the newly rich are using their sudden wealth to buy drugs.
Russian businessmen now top the list of drug users, ahead of workers, students, and housewives, according to Galina Sillaste, an expert on drug abuse. Their taste in narcotics is as expensive as their taste in cars and clothes.
PREVIOUSLY unknown in the Soviet Union, cocaine and imported heroin are on sale in almost every Russian city. ''In the first half of 1995, we seized cocaine and heroin about 180 times,'' up from only five such busts in 1988, Osipov says.
This boom in hard drugs has radically changed the nature of the Russian drug scene, once dominated by students and intellectuals. Sasha, a young magazine editor, says he stopped dealing cannabis a year ago. ''I never made big money from anyone; for me, it was a protest,'' he says. ''What is happening now is dirt and mafia.... Bandits always come after romantics.''
In the face of this banditry, the Russian authorities seem overwhelmed. Though Osipov points to more than 11,000 suspects charged with selling drugs in 1994, critics say the arrests were just the tip of the iceberg.
''Government agencies either cannot or do not want to catch the real drug traders,'' says Lyubov Zvyagina, a trial court judge in a Moscow neighborhood. ''Everybody knows that drugs are on sale at Cheryomushinsky Market in my district, but you can count the people arrested for that on the fingers of one hand.''
Some Russians say the police's failure to stem the drug tide is due to official corruption; others put it down to a lack of money. ''Departments to fight drugs are at the bottom of all the funding lists,'' Mr. Varfolomeyev complains.
Either way, it is clear that the 3,500 men in Osipov's department - who must cover all of Russia - are stretched. Half of the drugs consumed in Russia come from abroad - especially opium and cannabis that cross the country's porous southern border with Central Asia.
The other half come from local producers. ''Russia has its own basis for drug production,'' Osipov says. ''We have 2.5 million acres of wild cannabis that anybody can just go and pick.''
Meanwhile, highly skilled but underpaid Russian chemists in university or factory laboratories are known to make synthetic drugs on the side. And legally produced drugs sometimes leak onto the underground market, stolen from hospitals or warehouses.
If the government's attempts to control drug supply are ineffectual, so are its efforts to curb demand. Varfolomeyev, who heads the most prominent independent body combatting drug use, says he has to rely on private and foreign funding.
''We try to attract public attention to this problem [of drug abuse and] carry out research,'' he says, ''but all this takes a lot of money and the state has not given us a kopeck.''