Italy's 8,500 kilometers of coastline, its proximity to the Middle East, and well-entrenched organized crime rings have helped to make Italy a major transit point for drugs to Europe and the United States.
During the mid-'70s, Italy was primarily a point of passage, with most of the heroin going on to the United States and most of the hashish to northern Europe. But since 1980, there has been growing demand among Italians not only for a cut of the profits, but also a share of the product.
The dramatic increase in the number of drug addicts has finally sparked serious efforts by the Italian authorities to combat the tremendous influx of drugs into this Mediterranean country.
Italian health officials estimate there are approximately 100,000 addicts in Italy, a fivefold increase since 1980. The angry realization of what this addiction is doing to Italy's youth brought more than 20,000 people into the streets of Verona demonstrating in late October against the ''merchants of death.''
Police arrested 10,000 people in 1981 for drug offenses. So far in the first six months of 1982, the number of drug-related arrests has risen 30 percent. More than 1,000 of these are foreigners, but the remainder are clearly an Italian problem.
Based on the amount of drugs confiscated in Italy, the problem is enormous - and growing. Police estimate that in 1981 Italy took in from the Middle East alone 59 kilograms of heroin, 80 kilograms of morphine, and 6,403 kilograms of hashish. In 1980, more than 200 kilograms of heroin were confiscated in Italy, while less than half that was seized in the US, according to US Drug Enforcement Agency statistics.
Judging again from the seizures, police say in the past year and a half, Italy has supplanted the Netherlands as Europe's primary hashish broker. Several shipments of between 10 and 30 tons of hashish, primarily from Lebanon, have been seized aboard Greek freighters unloading on beaches near Calabria or Naples. Investigators say usually a ton or two is dropped off in Italy, while the remainder is taken overland to the Netherlands.
With the military crackdown in Turkey and the strict surveillance in the Balkans, the overland route from the Middle East through Yugoslavia has been replaced by the sea route.
The morphine base from Syria and opium from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran that heads for the Mafia-controlled laboratories to be refined into heroin is transfered from large frigates in international waters to small Italian motorboats that speed the drug to shore under the cover of darkness.
''It's physically impossible to control the entire coastline,'' a Foreign Ministry official explained. So the Italians have set out a different strategy, stressing international cooperation between the drug-producing nations and Italy.
''We need the cooperation of every country. There must not be any weak points. The smugglers discover and capitalize on any sanctuary available,'' the official said.
Bolivia, with its 500 landing strips in the forest, had until recently been one of those sanctuaries. Cyprus, on the other hand, continues to be a big problem, since drugs are usually only in transit and therefore not a high priority for this country of relatively limited resources.
The unstable situation in recent years in Lebanon, whose Bekaa Valley produces most of the world's supply of hashish (under the protection of Syrian troops), had plagued the Italians.
But the Israeli invasion of Lebanon put a significant damper on the export of Lebanon's biggest crop. The presence of Israeli troops and ships, and now the US Sixth Fleet, has effectively blocked the coast. The airport, which has been operating with reduced traffic, is also under tight control of the US Marines.
According to drug investigators, the fighting in Lebanon and an arrest in Greece have put two out of three of the big wholesalers in the Bekaa Valley out of business.
The Mafia gang war that has claimed more than 115 lives in Sicily so far this year in a dispute over which family would control the heroin trade to the US (worth $600 million yearly in profit), has wreaked havoc with the ''Sicilian connection.''
In contrast to the strong ties between the Inzerillo and Gambino clans, the new victorious El Greco family now has only two tenuous links with the big Mafia families distributing 90 percent of the heroin in the northeastern portion of the US. Investigators say the amount of heroin available there has slackened noticeably in the past four or five months.
Although the heroin and hashish traffic has abated temporarily, Italy is concerned by a new US-Italian connection. The Neapolitan Mafia, known as the Camorra, has been building a large cocaine traffic from Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. The cocaine is brought into Naples, then smuggled into other European cities or the US. The clampdown in the southern US, which had been the direct recipient of all South American cocaine, has enabled the Camorra to enter into this highly profitable trade as an effective middleman.
The Italians would like to get permission for their Carabinieri to board and search ships in international waters, obtain better cooperation for their requests for extradition of drug smugglers arrested in other countries, and tighten up passport controls to crack the smuggling rings.
The Italian Foreign Ministry is planning to open between four and six drug-watching offices in the biggest drug-producing capitals. It has also charged more than 25 ambassadors with information-gathering missions.
US Attorney General William French Smith's meetings in Rome this week will center on cooperative measures to be undertaken. Two agreements between the US and Italy on extradition and mutual assistance for compiling cases against captured drug racketeers are almost completed and may be signed during Mr. Smith's visit.