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|Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy|
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|Volume 3 - Public Policy Options|
Chapter 19 - The International Legal Environment
The Single Convention has played a
central role in the creation of the modern prohibitionist system of
international drug control. It is a continuation and expansion of the legal
infrastructure developed between 1909 and 1953.
The work of consolidating the existing international drug control treaties into one instrument began in 1948, but it was 1961 before an acceptable third draft was ready to be presented for discussion at a plenipotentiary conference. The conference began in New York on 24 January 1961, and was attended by 73 countries, each “with an agenda based on its own domestic priorities.”
William B. McAllister has divided
the participating states into five distinct categories based on their drug
control stance and objectives.
The result of all these competing interests was a document that epitomized compromise. The Single Convention clearly upheld and expanded existing controls and in its breadth was the most prohibitionist document yet concluded, though it was not as stringent as it might have been. It was free of the costly features of the 1953 Opium Protocol, such as the provision restricting opium production to the seven specified countries. Sharman no longer negotiated for Canada, and Anslinger had played a minor role in the conference owing to conflicts with the U.S. State Department. The latter was content with the Convention because U.S. influence was assured within the UN supervisory bodies and the prohibitive framework had been expanded to include tight controls over coca and cannabis. Since the U.S. originated the idea of the Single Convention, walking out of the conference would have meant losing face in the UN and given the impression of weakness vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during a tense Cold War period.
The principal foundations of the previous treaties remained in place in the Single Convention. Parties were still required to submit estimates of their drug requirements and statistical returns on the production, manufacture, use, consumption, import, export, and stockpiling of drugs. The import certification system created by the 1925 Geneva Convention was maintained. Parties were required to license all manufacturers, traders and distributors, and all transactions involving drugs had to be documented. The Single Convention built on the trend of requiring Parties to develop increasingly punitive criminal legislation. Subject to their constitutional limitations, Parties were to adopt distinct criminal offences, punishable preferably by imprisonment, for each of the following drug-related activities in contravention of the Convention: cultivation, production, manufacture, extraction, preparation, possession, offering, offering for sale, distribution, purchase, sale, delivery on any terms whatsoever, brokerage, dispatch, dispatch in transit, transport, importation and exportation. Furthermore, the granting of extradition was described as “desirable.”
Convention assigned substances to one of four schedules based on level of
control. Schedules I and IV were the most stringent and covered primarily raw
organic materials (opium, coca, cannabis) and their derivatives, such as heroin
and cocaine. Schedules II and III were less strict and contained primarily
codeine-based synthetic drugs. At the U.S.’s insistence, cannabis was placed
under the heaviest control regime in the Convention, Schedule IV. This
regime included drugs such as heroin (the WHO considered any medical use of
heroin to be “obsolete”). The argument for placing cannabis in this category
was that it was widely abused. The WHO later found that cannabis could have
medical applications after all, but the structure was already in place and no
international action has since been taken to correct this anomaly.
The U.S. was
pleased with the Single Convention as it broadened control over cultivation of
the opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plant, though the measures were not as
stringent as the ones Anslinger had negotiated in the 1953 Opium Protocol. Articles 23 and 24 of the
Convention set up national opium monopolies and put very strict limitations on
international trade in opium.
Article 49 of
the Convention required Parties to completely eliminate all quasi-medical use
of opium, opium smoking, coca leaf chewing,
and non-medical cannabis use within 25 years of the coming into force of the
Convention. All production or manufacture of these drugs was also to be
eradicated within the same period. Only Parties for which such uses were
“traditional” could take advantage of delayed implementation; for others,
prohibition was immediate. Since the implementation period ended in 1989, these
practices are today fully prohibited, and the drugs may be used only for
regulated medical and scientific purposes.
Apart from consolidating the previous treaties and expanding control provisions, the Single Convention also streamlined the UN’s drug-related supervisory bodies. The PCOB and the DSB were merged in a new body, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), responsible for monitoring application of the Convention and administering the system of estimates and statistical returns submitted annually by Parties. The INCB was to have eleven members, three nominated by the WHO and eight by Parties to the Convention and UN members. The manufacturing lobby’s effectiveness in the negotiations was evident in the knowledge requirement for WHO nominees: “medical, pharmacological or pharmaceutical experience.” The INCB was given a limited power of embargo: it could recommend that Parties stop international drug trade with any Party that failed to comply with the provisions of the Convention.
The Convention’s emphasis on prohibition was reflected in the minimal attention paid to drug abuse problems. Only Article 38 touched on the social (demand) side of the drug problem by requiring Parties to “give special attention to the provision of facilities for the medical treatment, care and rehabilitation of drug addicts.” Furthermore, it was considered “desirable” that Parties “establish adequate facilities for the effective treatment of drug addicts,” but only if the country had “a serious problem of drug addiction and its economic resources [would] permit.” The inadequate recognition of demand/harm reduction approaches, such as prevention through education, has been one of the key criticisms of both the Single Convention and international drug control treaties in general.
Convention effectively consolidated several decades’ worth of assorted drug control
machinery into one key document administered by one principal body, the United
One of the Canadian delegates to the CND, National Health and Welfare
official Robert Curran, played the leading role in drafting a document that
would be acceptable to all countries as a starting point for negotiations
(McAllister (2000), page 205). For an analysis of this third draft, see
Leland M. Goodrich, “New Trends in Narcotics Control”, International Conciliation, No. 530, November 1960.
McAllister (1992), page 148.
Anslinger was extremely disappointed with the Single Convention because
he believed that the opium control provisions were not stringent enough (e.g.,
Article 25 still allowed any country to produce up to five tons of opium
annually, albeit subject to strict controls). He attempted to derail the
Convention by lobbying countries to ratify the 1953 Opium Protocol in hopes of
obtaining the number of ratifications needed to bring it into force. He failed,
and his influence waned after that. (Bewley-Taylor (1999), page 136‑161)
 Only the 1936 Trafficking Convention was not included in the Single Convention and remained in force separately, because agreement could not be reached on which of its provisions should be included in the Single Convention (McAllister (2000), page 207-208). Article 35 of the Single Convention simply encouraged cooperation between countries to combat illicit trafficking.
Single Convention, Articles 19 and 20.
Ibid., Articles 21 and 29-32.
Ibid., Article 36.
Ibid., Article 36(2).
Single Convention, Articles 22-28.
The limit was 15 years for the quasi-medical use of opium.
Single Convention, Articles 5 and 9-16.
Ibid., Article 9(1)(a).
Ibid., Article 14(2).
See, for example, Report of the
International Working Group on the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961,
Toronto, Addiction Research Foundation, 1983, page 10-11; recommendations 4, 5,
15, 19 and 20.
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy
Major Studies of Drug and Drug Policy
Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - The Report of the US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse
Licit and Illicit Drugs
Short History of the Marijuana Laws
The Drug Hang-Up
Congressional Transcripts of the Hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937
Frequently Asked Questions About Drugs
Basic Facts About the Drug War
Charts and Graphs about Drugs
Information on Alcohol
Guide to Heroin - Frequently Asked Questions About Heroin
LSD, Mescaline, and Psychedelics
Drugs and Driving
Children and Drugs
Drug Abuse Treatment Resource List
American Society for Action on Pain
Let Us Pay Taxes
Marijuana Business News
Reefer Madness Collection
Medical Marijuana Throughout History
Drug Legalization Debate
Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition
Marijuana, the First 12,000 Years
DEA Ruling on Medical Marijuana
Legal References on Drugs
GAO Documents on Drugs
Response to the Drug Enforcement Agency
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