THE narcotics trade is by far the most lucrative business on earth. It amounts to several hundred billion dollars a year, which equals or exceeds the trade in oil and is perhaps 10 times as large as the sale of arms.
A report by the International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency, highlights the compelling power of that money. It also points out what can happen when the sums involved outstrip the gross national product of most countries. More than a trillion dollars a day whirl around the world's money markets beyond the control of governments.
The narcotics traffic is no longer simply one of criminals supplying addicts; it has permeated society. Varied chemical substances, so-called designer drugs, are made in small laboratories. More ominously, the distinction between dope peddling and ethical distribution has blurred.
Take Ritalin, a central-nervous system stimulant used to treat attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity in children. Those who prescribe it say it can have a beneficial effect, but it is a potentially dangerous and addictive chemical compound tightly regulated by state and federal authorities.
The Control Board finds that worldwide use, some 90 percent of it in the US, has increased threefold in the past five years. At present, 3 to 5 percent of all US schoolchildren are being given Ritalin. Physicians and pharmacists say it is overprescribed, often as a matter of convenience in dealing with difficult children. Ritalin is something of a mystery; even its manufacturer says "the mode of action in man is not completely understood," adding that the specific causes of the symptoms it is meant to treat are unknown.
The law prohibits advertising Ritalin to the general public, but the Control Board says it "is being actively promoted by an influential 'parent association' that has received significant financial contributions from the leading manufacturer of this preparation in the United States."
The report says Ritalin is abused mainly by teens who buy or steal it from children. Tablets reportedly sell for between $3 and $15 each. Crushed and snorted like cocaine or cooked and injected like heroin, they lead to addiction, psychotic episodes, personality disturbance, and death. Ritalin is not the only ethical drug subject to abuse. Last month the federal government prohibited import and possession of a tranquilizer, Rohypnol, made in Switzerland and legally available in many countries.
CASES such as these may be dealt with by national authorities. The huge global narcotics trade and its profits in the service of organized crime have generated active countermeasures, but these haven't kept up with the traffickers' adaptability. Drug seizures have caused them only limited losses, made up for by increasing shipments. When routes are blocked, they find alternatives.
The former Soviet republics of Central Asia have become a major highway for heroin and opium from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe. All grow cannabis. One, Kazakstan, also manufactures morphine, codeine, and other opiates. Kazakstan is not a party to the three main international drug-control treaties and is often used as a transit point by traffickers. Central and eastern European countries are used the same way. It's here that former Soviet nationals who have settled in Austria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and elsewhere have established international links between trafficking groups.
The board demands a mobilization against the source of the traffickers' power - their money. So far, nations have done little to effectively coordinate the fight against money laundering. Profits are generally sent off to a succession of countries in multiple financial transactions to conceal their origin or are invested in apparently legal economic activity.
The money, and the properties it has bought, should be confiscated as drugs are seized. To keep the process from bogging down in litigation, the burden of proof in these cases should be reversed. Those able to undermine governments and corrupt societies should by law not be innocent until proven guilty but be compelled to prove their innocence.