A United Nations international drug report says the world is facing an increase in the smuggling of both illegal and legal drugs through the international mail system. The report also says abuse of prescription drugs in North America now rivals the abuse of such narcotics as heroin.

The International Narcotics Control Board annual report warns that the smuggling of illicit and legal drugs by mail has become a major threat to law enforcement. The INCB called for greater screening of the mails - including mail sent by international courier.

The report estimated that the smuggling of legal drugs - especially tranquilizers ordered through the Internet and forwarded by mail - is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Akira Fujino, the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime representative in Asia, says the smuggling of illegal drugs is also growing.

"According to the board, almost all regions of the world have experienced an increase in the smuggling of drugs, both narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances - particularly psychotropic substances - and seizures are increasing," said Fujino.

The report says that in the United States, Mexico and Canada, the non-medical use of prescription drugs - such as the painkiller Oxycontin - rivals the abuse of all other drugs. It says Mexicans are abusing such drugs nearly as frequently as they abuse cocaine.

The report expressed alarm over the illicit manufacture of methamphetamines in many parts of the world, including North America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Oceania, and especially Southeast Asia.

Mike Chapman, acting regional director for East Asia of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said a raid of a mega-laboratory near Jakarta last November uncovered 1,000 kilograms of methamphetamine, and the lab had a capacity of 10,000 kilograms. He said Southeast Asia is a major production point for the drug.

"Its astronomical, the amount of methamphetamine that is being produced in this region," said Chapman.

The INCB recommended a rethink of alternative development projects being used to control drugs. It said that while crop substitution programs in Burma and Laos had succeeded in reducing the output of opium, for example, such programs had done little to promote development and reduce poverty in those regions.