The glittering vaults of gold at Fort Knox and West Point, N.Y., harbor a deep secret: enough black opium and white morphine to satisfy the legal needs of the entire nation for a year.
Since 1955 the drugs have been part of the nation's strategic reserves and were intended to tide the country over if foreign opium supplies were cut off in an emergency.
With the end of the Cold War, the huge stores of narcotics no longer make much sense, Defense Department officials say.
But Congress won't let the department sell the drugs.
So officials are investing another $7 million to preserve the unneeded drug stores, making the sale of the $23 million worth of narcotics even more unlikely and difficult.
The Defense Department has had better luck selling some of the other commodities stored in the bullion depositories.
On June 11, the agency sold 932,806 carats of diamonds for $77 million. Another 500,000 carats of natural diamonds will be offered for sale Sept. 24 in large lots. The diamonds vary in size from very small to 10-carat gems.
The Defense Logistics Agency, which is charged with stockpiling strategic materials, contracts with the U.S. Mint to store the most precious in the depositories. Since Treasury officials don't offer tours of the gold vaults, the drugs have been secret for years.
Mint officials refused to discuss the drugs, referring all questions to the Defense Logistics Agency. Bob O'Brien, deputy administrator of the agency's Defense National Stockpile Center, confirmed that the drugs were stored in the vaults - next to 147 million troy ounces of gold in Fort Knox and another 60 million troy ounces of gold at West Point.
Although the stockpile of narcotics is designed to tide the country over in the event foreign opium supplies are cut off, an extended interruption is now unlikely. U.S. drug companies once bought nearly all of their opium from India and Turkey. But a new method of opium production developed in the early 1970s led Australia, Hungary, France and Yugoslavia to get into the business of exporting concentrated poppy straw. Commerce with all these widely dispersed nations would have to be interrupted before the agency's stockpile would be needed.
And if a nuclear war did stop trade, the devastation would make the drug stockpile difficult to use anyway. The opium and morphine would have to be transported out of the depositories to drug manufacturers for further processing and then distributed to hospitals - an almost impossible task in a country devastated by nuclear weapons.
Glenn Flood, a Department of Defense policy spokesman, acknowledged that the huge stores of narcotics don't make sense anymore.
But the government might be stuck with the drugs for years to come.
The agency has 68,269 pounds of opium and morphine stored at Fort Knox and West Point, an amount taht could satisfy the nation's legal needs for about a year, according to the latest figures by the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board.
Federal law precludes the agency from selling anything out of its stockpile in quantities that would hurt domestic producers, Offenbacker said. And the government has more than enough morphine to hurt domestic manufacturers of the drug if it were all dumped on the market.
The agency could have sold its opium before it was processed into morphine. The sales might have depressed the world opium market, but since there are no domestic producers of opium, no American company would have been hurt.
Instead, the agency contracted with the NORAMCO company of Delaware to convert the remaining opium into morphine sulphate. The conversion means the agency will have to hold onto the drugs for years or destroy them and lose the multimillion-dollar investment.
Officials said they don't have a choice. Without Congress' authorization to sell the drugs, the agency decided it had to convert its aging opium into morphine or the opium would have become useless, Offenbacker said.