This year marks the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, signed on 30 March 1961. Couched with the lofty aim of concern for “the health and welfare of mankind,” the guiding principle of the treaty was to limit the use of drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes, because, as the preamble continues, “addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind.” At the same time, the Convention recognized “that the medical use of narcotic drugs continues to be indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering and that adequate provision must be made to ensure the availability of narcotic drugs for such purposes”.

Fifty years on, it is time for a critical reflection on the validity of the Single Convention today: a reinterpretation of its historical significance and an assessment of its aims, its strengths and its weaknesses. Indeed, while there is often a tendency to interpret the treaty as part of an unbroken continuum dating back to the first decade of the last century, the Single Convention must rather be seen as a significant change in way the international community approached drug control.

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that the original ambition for the ‘Single’ Convention to become the ‘convention to end all conventions’ failed when the control regime developed further with conventions in 1971 and 1988 giving rise to new inconsistencies within the current global drug control treaty system. This policy briefing analyses the origins and negotiations of the Single Convention, examines the way it broke with the previous drug control system by introducing a more prohibitive ethos, penal obligations, controls on plants and abolition of traditional uses of plants like coca, and concludes that a revision of its outdated provisions is required.