Martin Jelsma and Amira Armenta

To understand how the drug-related treaties came about, we need to refer to the historical and political context at the time they were adopted and the international events that preceded them. The proposal to create an international legal framework governing psychoactive substances was an initiative of the United States that dates back to the start of the 20th century and has gone through several stages since then.

In February 1909, amid growing concern about opium use in China, twelve countries met in Shanghai and set up the International Opium Commission to discuss the possibilities for imposing international controls on the opium trade for the first time. The delegates resolved – though without committing themselves – to put an end to the practice of smoking opium, restrict its use to medical purposes, and control its harmful by-products. No attempt was made at the time to apply criminal law in this regard.

This was the background to the first International Opium Convention (The Hague, 1912). This and other later treaties negotiated by the League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations, 1919-1946) were normative rather than prohibitive in nature and their objective was to curb the excesses of an unregulated system of free trade. This meant that they imposed restrictions on exports but did not make it obligatory to declare drug use or cultivation illegal, let alone make these activities a criminal offence. Thus, the provisions they established for opiates, cocaine and cannabis did not involve criminalising either the substances themselves or their users or producers of their raw materials.

This was the reason why the two most 'prohibitionist' countries at the time, the United States and China, withdrew from the negotiations that led to the 1925 International Opium Convention, because they considered its measures to be insufficiently restrictive. On that occasion, the United States was aiming to secure not just the prohibition of drugs, but a ban on the production and non-medical use of alcohol, attempting to reproduce on an international scale its alcohol prohibition regime that remained in force from 1920 to 1933.

This attempt was thwarted because the United States did not have the support of the European colonial powers (France, Great Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands) whose overseas territories enjoyed a profitable monopoly on drugs (opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine) destined for the pharmaceutical market in Europe and the US.

Emerging from the Second World War as the dominant political, economic and military power, the United States was then in a position to forge a new drug control regime (the 1946 Lake Success Protocol) and apply the necessary pressure to impose it on other countries in the setting of the United Nations. The political climate enabled the globalisation of prohibitionist anti-drug ideals.

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