June 29, 2005

Illegal drug trade a world force – UN

By Niklas Pollard

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Annual worldwide illegal drug salesare greater than the gross domestic product of 88 percent ofthe countries in the world, the U.N. said on Wednesday.

"This is not a small enemy against which we struggle. It isa monster," Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United NationsOffice on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said in an annual report.

Costa offered one tale of success. The south-east Asian"Golden Triangle," once a major center of illicit poppycultivation, could be declared opium free by 2007 thanks partlyto anti-drug operations by regional governments, he said. Butthe overall picture appeared bleak.

The UN report, issued in Stockholm, said the global drugtrade generated an estimated $321.6 billion in 2003, the latestyear for which figures were available.

"The size of the world's illicit drug industry is thusequivalent to 0.9 percent of the world's GDP or higher than theGDP of 88 percent of the countries in the world," CarstenHyttel, East African representative of the U.N. Office on Drugsand Crime (UNODC), told a Nairobi news conference.

It was the first time the U.N. drugs agency had made anestimate of the worth of the world's illegal drug market, whichit said was necessary to understand the breadth of itsinfluence and ability to destabilize countries.

"Its 'companies' are not listed on the stock exchange, theyare not valued by any private accounting firm and the dynamicsof the drug industry are not regularly pored over by analysts,economists and forecasters," the report said.

The bulk of the money - $214 billion - was made at theretail level; drugs sold in streets and back alleys.

North America was the biggest buyer, and accounted for 44percent of all estimated sales, followed by Europe with 33percent. Africa was in last place with only 4 percent.


The main problem drugs continue to be opiates -- mainlyheroin -- and cocaine, which accounted for the bulk of almost22 million people the report termed problem drug users. Theoutlook for supply of such drugs would be determined byconditions in major producers such as Afghanistan.

"The story of heroin production today is basically thestory of Afghanistan," Costa said.

The 2004 Afghan presidential elections meant the picturethere had improved, as the government strengthened control overthe economy. The area under poppy cultivation had also fallen.

The report said opium production in the Golden Trianglestraddling Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, which a few years agoaccounted for most of the world's opium poppy cultivation, was78 percent lower than in 1996.

"We may be able to declare the whole of the Golden Triangleopium free by 2007, closing a very sad chapter," Costa said.

However, South American cocaine output did not fall and thearea under cultivation rose in Peru and Bolivia.

The international community needed to continue to supportprograms to allow farmers to grow alternative crops, it said.

(Additional reporting by C. Bryson Hull in Nairobi)