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UN report puts world's illicit drug trade at estimated $321b

STOCKHOLM -- Annual worldwide illegal drug sales are greater than the gross domestic product of 88 percent of the countries in the world, the UN said yesterday.

''This is not a small enemy against which we struggle. It is a monster," Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an annual report.

Costa offered one tale of success. The southeast Asian ''Golden Triangle," once a major center of illicit poppy cultivation, could be declared opium-free by 2007, thanks partly to antidrug operations by regional governments, he said. But the overall picture appeared bleak.

The UN report, issued in Stockholm, said the global drug trade generated an estimated $321.6 billion in 2003, the latest year for which figures were available.

''The size of the world's illicit drug industry is thus equivalent to 0.9 percent of the world's GDP or higher than the GDP of 88 percent of the countries in the world," Carsten Hyttel, East African representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told a Nairobi news conference.

It was the first time the UN drugs agency had made an estimate of the worth of the world's illegal drug market, which it said was necessary to understand the breadth of its influence and its ability to destabilize countries.

''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 report said.

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

Most of the buying was in North America, with 44 percent of all estimated sales, followed by Europe with 33 percent. Africa was in last place with only 4 percent.

The drugs that constitute the biggest problem continue to be opiates, mainly heroin, and cocaine, which accounted for most of the nearly 22 million people the report termed problem drug users. The outlook for supply of such drugs, the report said, would be determined by conditions in major producers such as Afghanistan.

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