The present global drug control system is now 100 years old. It was inspired by the realisation that no country could regulate drug use in isolation, since these commodities were so readily bought and sold across borders and jurisdictions. Effective control would require states to work together as an international community.

Three conventions make up the instruments of international drug law:

The overall objective of the conventions remains as it was specified a century ago - to limit the production, distribution and use of drugs to scientific and medical purposes. The three conventions provide the mandate and underpin the functioning of the UN agencies most involved in drug control:

The three drug control conventions are not ‘self-executing’ – they require signatory states to enact and enforce national legislation in order to comply with their treaty obligations. However, the international system provides the overarching regulatory framework, and its agencies assist national governments in meeting their requirements under the treaties.

Only a few governments have not signed up to the treaties underpinning the global drug control system, which has been viewed for many years as exemplifying the spirit of international co-operation in the name of humanity. Recently, however, there has been a growing realisation that the system is far from perfect, and needs to be fundamentally reviewed. This insight was supposed to have guided the UNGASS review of drug control in 2009, which ended by largely reaffirming the current arrangements, thereby representing a missed opportunity of considerable proportions.