WHAT ARE WE to make of John Z. DeLorean, former Wunderkind of General Motors, founder of a multi-million-dollar automobile corporation and now charged with conspiracy to sell a fortune in cocaine in order to salvage his failing company? The cynical might say the case simply signals the decline of one major American industry -- autos -- and the simultaneous rise of another -- drugs. They would be right in pointing out that there is more money to be made today in trading heroin and cocaine than there ever was in Hudsons and Chevrolets. A few quick trades in the world of big-time dope dealers can produce tens of millions of dollars. Enough to save a company and 2,600 jobs; enough to salvage pride and reputation -- if one isn't caught.

This kind of crime, however, goes beyond familiar white-collar financial double-dealing. It would not be unprecedented for businessmen to manipulate stock to save a failing enterprise, or conspire to fix prices in order to increase profits. Cheating on taxes, juggling the books and hoodwinking stockholders are all criminal acts, not without victims. But dealing in dope is of another order. As the prosecutor in this case, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Walsh, said, "One doesn't create industry on the backs of cocaine users and heroin addicts." It is despicable.

John DeLorean was earning $650,000 a year as a GM vice president when he left that company in 1973. He took a risk to build his own company, and his own product, a sleek and expensive sports car that, powerful, classy and special -- attributes Mr. DeLorean is said to admire in people as well as machines. Certainly there is nothing wrong with ambition or ego drive in the business world: a certain amount of both went into the creation of most major American corporations. But DeLorean's glorious and expensive dream never got off the ground. In spite of generous financing provided in part by the British government, anxious to create jobs in Northern Ireland, the market for the DeLorean car failed to materialize.

Tragically, in some areas, cocaine, not cars, is the growth industry, and the potential profits are so great that the earnings of a major manufacturing company pale in comparison. The case of John DeLorean involves more than the conduct of a few individuals. It is a reflection on an economy and a culture when creative business enterprise can fail and the soul-destroying corruption of drug addiction thrives.