The illegal drugs business rakes in more money than 88% of the world's countries. It brings untold deaths and misery to millions. If you were burgled recently, drugs were probably the cause. Isn't it time governments tried a new way of dealing with the problem
If your house was burgled last year... if your mobile phone was nicked in the street... if you have bought a dodgy copy of a computer game or DVD... then you have probably been sucked into one of the world's biggest businesses - the drugs business.
World sales of illegal drugs in 2003 earned more than the gross domestic product of 88 PER CENT of the world's nations.
The number of people using drugs rose 15 per cent - a total of 200 million people.
That figure may seem huge but it is just five per cent of the world population - a small number compared to the 50 per cent who drink alcohol and 30 per cent who smoke tobacco.
But drugs are an irresistible business. Their value at wholesale level dwarfs all other agricultural commodities: $94 billion, compared to $52 billion for meat, $40 billion for cereals, $17 billion for wine, $6 billion for beer and $2.6 billion for tea.
The profit margins are immense. The United Nations estimates illegal drugs are worth $12.8 billion to producers, $94 billion to the major suppliers and an astonishing $321 billion to the dealers.
If you are enterprising enough, you can buy a kilo of cannabis in Djibouti, East Africa, for $20, transport it to America and sell it for $7,000. A nice little 3,500 per cent profit.
If you could be bothered to divide it into $10 bags, that $6,980 profit would rocket. Behind these astonishing figures, lies a seemingly unstoppable scandal of greed, murder, crime, broken souls and bloody human tragedy.
It is probably as big a scar on our world today as poverty.
And the UN's annual drugs report breaks down the world market for narcotics in detail.
It is the first time the UN agency has made an estimate of the worth of the world's illegal drug market, which it says is necessary to understand the breadth of its influence and ability to destabilise countries.
The report says: "Its 'companies' are not listed on the stock exchange, they are not valued by any private accounting firm and the dynamics of the drug industry are not regularly pored over by analysts, economists and forecasters."
The bulk of the money - $214 billion - was made at the retail level: drugs sold on the streets.
North America was the biggest buyer, and accounted for 44 percent of all estimated sales, followed by Europe with 33 per cent. Africa was in last place with just four per cent.
Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN department said: "This is not a small enemy against which we struggle. It is a monster."
So can the answer be simply: "Just say no"?
Is it not time that governments realised it may be better to try a new approach to drugs, rather than continue their fruitless 35-year attempt to stamp them out?
Britain has given UKP 52 million to Afghanistan to fight opium production - the war-torn country supplies around 90 per cent of Europe's heroin.
According to the UN, production there has dropped - a victory of sorts. They also hope production in the Golden Triangle - straddling Myanmar, Laos and Thailand - may have been completely stopped by 2007.
Cocaine production has fallen in Bolivia. But, the UN says, production in Peru and Columbia has simply expanded to fill the void.
For four decades the world has fought the drugs lords - but is it a war that needs more than handouts and military intervention.
Pressure group Transform campaigns for the legalisation of drugs under government control. They liken the war against drugs to America's 13-year ban of alcohol during prohibition in the 1920s. The group say almost half of all crime in the UK is linked to the drugs trade and that half or even more of our prison population are behind bars because of drug-related crime.
Transform's answer is radical and they accept it may not come about for two decades: The legalising of drugs with government involvement.
They point to the UKP 16 billion spent every year in the UK by the government on combating drugs.
Spokesman Danny Kushlik told the Daily Mirror: "It's the same as the prohibition of alcohol - 1920 to 1933 - which ended with the corruption of the entire United States police force and the creation of the American Mafia, but on a global scale
"What we have done with drugs prohibition dating back to 1961 is set up this huge hundreds-of-billions-dollar business."
Mr Kushlik added: "It's very difficult for senior politicians like Tony Blair and George Bush to get out of this now. They are having to produce reports that show their own policies aren't working.
"You can have all sorts of schemes to try to control the drugs trade - you can encourage Afghan farmers to grow apricots, you can make sure that people with drug issues get into rehabilitation programmes - but you cannot end it at source and that is the issue - how do you do this?
"You can end it by ending prohibition. That is a huge issue for the whole world and it has to be addressed.
"Remember it is not the farmers or people working the fields that are making the money. It is the drugs lords who are making the money and they are the ones who want to keep making that money, and that money is fuelling the fight against law enforcement."
Two years ago a UN policy meeting considered the 1961 convention that ordered countries "to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs".
Forty-four years on, it remains the basic template for attempting to control the world's drug trade. In its report the UN noted studies from 95 countries that showed in the past eight years there had been around 1.3million drug seizures every year worldwide.
Around the globe 161 million people - four per cent of the population between the ages of 15 and 64 - used cannabis in 2003.
The year before, Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam called for the legalisation of all drugs - including ecstasy, heroin and cocaine.
The head of the government's anti-drugs campaign - who admitted she smoked cannabis as a student - said she would tax drugs and use the revenue to help reduce addiction.
She added: "You'd have the money from tax, which if it were ring-fenced for working with addicts whether cannabis, pills, barbiturates, coke or heroin you'd have a chance of beating it.
"I think that is the most effective way because in the end I don't think you could ever stop it.
"I don't think we can stop it, and there are a number of people in other countries and police and social workers who agree with me."
Many people might disagree. Most politicians would regard such a plan as electoral suicide.
Many are so scared they won't contemplate talking about it.
In Britain, demands for a Royal Commission on drugs have been consistently turned down.
But can any government in the world put its hand on its heart and say that the current policy on drugs is working?
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