The present system of worldwide drug control is based upon three international conventions:

  • The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (as amended by the 1972 Protocol) unified and replaced all previous drug control legislation and forms the legal bedrock of the current system. It established a universal system for limiting the cultivation, production, distribution, trade, possession and use of narcotic substances to medical and scientific purposes, with a special focus on plant-derived substances: opium, heroin, coca, cocaine and cannabis.
  • The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances extended international control to cover more than 100 synthetic substances. The controls imposed on these substances are less strict than for the 1961 Convention.  
  • The 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances was adopted to respond to massive increases in demand and supply of controlled drugs for non-medical use, and the rapid growth of a lucrative criminal black market. The convention provides special enforcement measures and reinforces the obligation of countries to impose criminal sanctions domestically to counter drug production and trafficking – but it also offers some flexibility for states parties to address drug use.

These three conventions enjoy widespread adherence, with 184 states being parties to the first convention, 183 to the second, and 189 to the third (as of July 2014).

There is growing momentum calling for a reform of these conventions, which were written many years ago and no longer reflect the realities of the world drug problem – for example, the conventions predate the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs, and recent emergence of new psychoactive substances, while some jurisdictions are even moving towards the legal regulation of cannabis. However, there is a clear reluctance amongst many member states to even consider reform of the documents, which they claim remain “fit for purpose” for the 21st century.

To some extent, this reluctance reflects how difficult it would be to achieve a meaningful global consensus on any new convention or treaty, as drug policy remains a politically sensitive issue. As with most international agreements, there is also a myriad of different interpretations of the conventions: while some countries apply the death penalty for the possession of drugs, other countries have removed criminal sanctions for the same offence – yet they all are parties to, and claim to adhere with, these three conventions. As a result, member states and UN leaders have a tendency to approach all drug policy debates from a starting point that the existing conventions are sacrosanct and unchangeable in every detail. Yet, just like any other international legal instrument, the drug conventions must be subject to review and modernisation in order to adapt to current situations and challenges.

Another serious concern is the failure of the conventions to ensure that internationally controlled substances are available for medical and scientific purposes – as experience has shown that restrictive interpretations of the treaties by UN drugs agencies and governments have resulted in poor access to essential medicines, especially in low and middle income countries. This has led the World Health Organisation to advise against the scheduling some substances (such as ketamine, a widely used anaesthetic in developing countries) due to concerns that this would restrict their availability for medical purposes.

The 2016 UNGASS on drugs can be an important opportunity to conduct an objective and technical review of the conventions, without political, ideological or diplomatic pressures. IDPC will offer technical and expert advice in this regard through a series of advocacy notes and briefing papers to recommend a constructive way forward.