And to think of how many Americans are involved with cocaine nowadays! A “household survey” done for NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, showed 5.8 million having used it within the previous month. But most experts think there must be more regular users. They put the maximum number a retailer would want to supply at 25, so there must be at least 230,000 easy payday loans dealers out there. That’s more than all the dentists, or taxi drivers.
How reliable are such figures? When it comes to coca and cocaine, that’s a problem right from the start. How much coca is there? Satellite photography suggests 400,000 acres, but some are planted loosely, some densely. How many harvests a year—three, or four, or more? How many kilos of leaf an acre? And what percentage cocaine content? Erythroxylum coca var. coca in Peru differs from Erythroxylum coca var. ipadu in Colombian Amazonia. But legislators, law enforcement bureaucracies, the press—all demand figures, and so we have some: Annual cocaine production, U. S. officials tell me, is running at 200 tons; other experts say 400. All agree—it’s rising. We must do something.
At the International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, convened by the United Nations in Vienna, it’s agreed that more drugs than ever are flooding the world—and the focus is on the fastest spreading one, cocaine. Foreign ministers and health ministers, ministers of justice and the U. S. Attorney General make strong speeches in the plenary sessions. But in the main committee, where a 114-page draft paper is up for adoption—to stress the international community’s political will—there’s disagreement point by point. Most countries just don’t want to be told by other countries what to do. And so the draft is drastically amended. To start, in every paragraph where it says a government should do something, the word “should” is changed to “could” or “may.”
Outside the meeting halls and barcelona apartment rentals, salesmen offer technological help. I watch a demonstration of a contraband detection van priced at four million dollars. It has a computerized mass spectrometer. You draw an air sample from a cargo container, and in two minutes the printout is supposed to tell if there’s cocaine in there. There is, provided for the occasion by the Austrian police. But the printout says “negative.”
The chief superintendent in charge of drug fighting for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tells me technology could never go to the heart of the problem—corruption. The big conference document hardly mentioned this. At least he’s not totally pessimistic. By the time this article is published, he says, negotiations may have been concluded for a new treaty, to supplement the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It should provide for tracing those billions in drug profits through the world’s financial system and seizing them.