The development of international drug control

Lessons learned and strategic challenges for the future
Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 10
February 2011

dlr10The emergence of more pragmatic and less punitive approaches to the drugs issue may represent the beginning of change in the current global drug control regime. The spread of HIV/AIDS among injecting drug users, the overcrowding of prisons, the reluctance in South America to remain a theatre for military anti-drug operations, and the ineffectiveness of repressive anti-drug efforts to reduce the illicit market have all contributed to the global erosion of support for the United States-style war on drugs.

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Over the last decade rapidly widening cracks have begun to split global drug control consensus. The zero-tolerance ideology is increasingly challenged by calls for decriminalisation, harm reduction and embedding human rights principles in drug control. And in recent years the merits of a regulated legal market for cannabis has been accepted as part of the mainstream debate about a more effective control model.

This paper describes how the foundations for the global control system were established, the radicalization of the system toward more repressive implementation, consequently leading to soft defections and de-escalation efforts becoming more widespread; and in the last section projects a future for the ongoing reform process toward a modernization and humanization of the control system’s international legal framework as laid down in the UN drug control conventions.


In 2012, the world will commemorate a century of international drug control. The International Opium Convention was signed on 23 January 1912 in The Hague by the United States, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia (Iran), Portugal, Russia, Siam (Thailand), Nicaragua, the United Kingdom and the British oversees territories (including British India). Out of legitimate concerns about drug-related problems and with the laudable aim to protect the welfare of mankind.

Over time the control system degenerated into a war on users, farmers and petty traders. The excessive negative consequences and negligible effectiveness have now been broadly acknowledged and a process of de-escalation is in full motion in many places. Guiding principles in that process are respect for human rights, harm reduction, decriminalisation, proportionality of sentences, a developmental approach to illicit cultivation, and an evidence-based return to rationality.

The current treaty system is plagued with inconsistencies, its ambiguities an obstacle to policy improvements, and sooner than later the current set of drug control conventions need to be revised. Inevitably the ongoing reform process will collide with the zero-tolerance nature of the UN conventions and with a number of their outdated articles. As was said in the first UN World Drug Report in 1997: “Laws – and even the international Conventions – are not written in stone; they can be changed when the democratic will of nations so wishes it.”

What the world needs is a group of countries willing to declare that the current treaty framework is no longer fit for purpose. A small group of countries initiated the development of an international drug control system a century ago. In 2012 another small group of countries could initiate its needed reform and design the outlines of a new legal framework for the next century, based on the many lessons learned over the past hundred years.