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INTERNATIONAL DRUG LAW

National drug policies are bound by commitments to international law. The three key treaties shaping international law on drugs are:

  • The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

  • The 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances

  • The 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

The UN drug control conventions are binding agreements that require countries to ban the supply of controlled drugs for non-medical or scientific use. This is a primary barrier to drug policy reform at the national level. However, an increasing number of countries (e.g. Canada) are deviating from these restrictions by legalising cannabis.

What do the drug conventions say?

The UN drug conventions have two core goals: preventing the production, supply and use of specific drugs for non-medical or scientific purposes, and ensuring a limited supply of those ‘controlled’ drugs for legal use (e.g. pain relief). International systems of control over opiates, cocaine and cannabis existed before the conventions were created (starting with the ‘Hague Convention’ of 1912), but those earlier agreements were superseded by the 1961 UN Single Convention.

The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

This defined a number of substances (including opiates, coca-based products and cannabis) as ‘narcotic drugs’. It established a system by which such drugs were ranked according to harm, and placed in one of four ‘schedules’ reflecting their risks and potential medical benefits. It required all countries to outlaw the production, supply or transportation of those drugs for non-medical or scientific purposes. It also established systems for ensuring the regulated supply of those drugs for medical and scientific purposes.

The 1961 Convention established the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) as the body responsible for guiding global policy and deciding on future amendments to the treaties. It also established the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), to monitor the implementation of the treaty. The World Health Organization (WHO) was tasked with providing expert input to support decisions on scheduling new drugs, or reviewing and making recommendations for amending the drug scheduling.

The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances

In the decade following the 1961 Convention, other drugs, including new stimulant drugs and psychedelics became increasingly prevalent. To consolidate control over these newer - and largely more ‘synthetic’ drugs, a second convention was approved.

Like its predecessor, the 1971 Convention established a drug scheduling framework and set out where specific drugs were to be placed within it. Confusingly, the 1971 Convention controls ‘psychotropic’ drugs, and the 1961 Convention controls ‘narcotic’ drugs, yet neither term has a coherent scientific meaning. For example, cocaine is regulated under the 1961 Convention while amphetamines are controlled under the 1971 Convention. Cannabis is controlled under the 1961 convention, while THC (the key psychoactive element of cannabis) is controlled under the 1971 convention. Even the UN Drug Control Programme (forerunner of the UNODC - see below), acknowledged that ‘the international classification into narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances according to whether the substance is governed by the 1961 or by the 1971 Convention has no conceptual basis’.

The confused definitions, as well as the creation of two parallel schedules, demonstrates the incoherence at the heart of the Conventions.

The 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

Despite the intentions of the 1961 and 1971 conventions, drug use continued to rise and the global illegal drug market expanded into a multi-billion dollar industry. The 1988 Convention enhanced the enforcement-led approach, with a particular focus on organised crime. It specifically required countries to adopt criminal sanctions for activities relating to production, supply, trafficking and use of drugs (although non-criminal sanctions for minor offences specified in the 1961 treaty still applied). The previous conventions had been more flexible - requiring only ‘such legislative and administrative measures as may be necessary’ (1961) and ‘such measures as [the state]...considers appropriate’ (1971).

The 1988 Convention also required countries to confiscate proceeds of drug-related crime, while facilitating extradition between countries for drug-related offences. It also created new controls restricting manufacture and distribution of precursor chemicals, used to produce drugs scheduled under the 1961 and 71 conventions.

The UN system

At the heart of the UN drug control system sits the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). It is responsible for deciding on any changes to the schedules or amendments to the treaties, as well as providing policy guidance in the form of resolutions. It is made up of a rotating group of 53 member states, selected by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The Commission meets annually at the UN in Vienna - although ‘intersessional’ meetings also take place in between the main annual conferences.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the conventions, as well as for overseeing and monitoring the supply of controlled drugs for medical and scientific purposes. It is made up of 13 members selected by ECOSOC, including three from the World Health Organisation (WHO). If the INCB feels a country is failing to comply with the conventions it can ‘name and shame’ them in its annual report, and by reporting to the CND and ECOSOC. Theoretically, it also has the power to recommend sanctions, including that the CND limit the medical trade in controlled drugs; however, while this power has occasionally been threatened, it has never been invoked.

Through its statements, annual reports and private communications, the INCB has a significant influence on the general approach to global drug policy that can impact millions of people. For example, how harm reduction may be viewed, the role of human rights in drug policy implementation, or how strongly moves towards decriminalisation or legalisation may be challenged.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was formed in 1997 through the merger of the UN International Drug Control Program and the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division. It is responsible for advising governments on effective enforcement of global drug laws, as well as for monitoring the global drug situation through its annual World Drugs Report. The views of the UNODC can set the tone for how global drug control is managed, and - as its name suggests - it does so largely through a focus on crime reduction, security and law enforcement, rather than the promotion of public health and human rights.

The World Health Organization is responsible for providing the core scientific evidence to the CND when it considers changes to schedules or amendments to the treaties. If rescheduling is proposed, the WHO will produce a review and recommendation through its Expert Committee on Drug Dependence. This recommendation is meant to guide the decision made by the CND. In practice however this does not always happen. Over the years, the influence of enforcement-oriented bodies such as the INCB has grown, while the WHO has been increasingly sidelined.

How does this affect me

National governments are required to adhere to the UN conventions. In the UK, the principles of the 1961 Convention were reflected in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

The drug laws which operate in the UK today are, therefore, directly related to the principles set out in the UN Conventions.. Member States also remain bound by those conventions – which is why the decisions made at a UN level remain critical to the way national drug policy works on a day-to-day level.

Moving forward

In recent years, the UN drug control system has faced a growing existential crisis in the face of rapidly changing social and political landscapes.The 1961 convention, which remains the legal and conceptual foundation of the entire system, was drafted in the 1940s and 50s - an era in which drug consumption and markets were almost unrecognisable from today.

The legalisation of cannabis in Canada, Uruguay, Mexico, Luxembourg, Israel, the US and elsewhere has broken the consensus around global prohibition. There is now growing polarisation at the UN level between reform-oriented states (predominantly in Europe and the Americas) calling for modernisation and greater flexibility and those who continue to defend the punitive, enforcement-led focus of the conventions (including Russia and China).

As more countries reform their drug laws, the UN drug control system will need to adapt or it will collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. It can no longer act as a brake on policy innovation or the development of laws better suited to local contexts. This is the precise opposite of the leadership role it is tasked to deliver. There are signs of change, however. The UN Chief Executives Board, which represents the heads of 31 UN agencies, has called for ‘decriminalization of drug possession for personal use’ and ‘changes in laws, policies and practices that threaten the health and human rights of people’. Change at UN level may be slow, but it is happening - and in significant part due to the concerted efforts of advocates and campaigners making the case for change.

Transform at the UN

CND Vienna

Transform holds Special Consultative NGO Status with the UN Economic and Social Council - allowing us to participate in a range of UN forums. We have played an active role in the meetings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs for over 15 years: speaking at debates; meeting with UN officials; briefing member state delegations; supporting drafting of resolutions; and supporting a broad range of collaborative advocacy efforts.

Transform has also actively engaged with other UN agencies - including The UN Development Program, UNAIDs, and UN Human rights agencies, as well as working closely with international partners organising advocacy efforts around the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016.

International partnerships

Since 2013, we have held a collaborative partnership with México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, an NGO advocating for security, justice and peace in Mexico. The MUCD drug policy project has played a pivotal role in recent changes to Mexican drug policy, including the imminent legal regulation of cannabis.

Working with MUCD, we have co-produced a large number of publications in English and Spanish, including our recent books on stimulant and cannabis regulation. We have participated in Mexican Congressional and Senate forums, and worked with lawmakers seeking to improve drug policy. The Transform-MUCD partnership has also engaged in the wider Latin American drug policy reform debate: participating in Government and NGO forums in Uruguay, Colombia, Chile and with regional bodies including the Organisation of American States.

Transform is an active member of the International Drug Policy Consortium. IDPC is a global network of 192 NGOs promoting objective and open debate drug policy reform. Transform has sat on the IDPC advisory board, and peer review group, working collaboratively on a wide range of advocacy initiatives

We have also served in an expert advisory capacity for the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Global Commission is a group of former heads of state, political leaders and public figures advocating for drug law reform. We provided technical support on two Global Commission reports; Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work (2014), and Regulation: The Responsible Control of Drugs (2018).

MUCD team