Fifty Years of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs: A Reinterpretation

David Bewley-Taylor Martin Jelsma
Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 12
March 2011

dlr12This year marks the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, signed on 30 March 1961. 73 countries were represented at the conference that took place in New York from 24 January to 25 March 1961, which sought to lay a new solid foundation for drug control in the post-war United Nations era. The aim was to replace the multiple existing multilateral treaties in the field with a single instrument as well as to reduce the number of international treaty organs concerned with the control of narcotic drugs, and to make provisions for the control of the production of raw materials of narcotic drugs. The Single Convention entered into force on 13 December 1964, having met the requirement of forty state ratifications.

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Couched with the lofty aim of concern for “the health and welfare of mankind,” the guiding principle of the treaty was to limit the use of drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes, because, as the preamble continues, “addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind.” At the same time, the Convention recognized “that the medical use of narcotic drugs continues to be indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering and that adequate provision must be made to ensure the availability of narcotic drugs for such purposes”.

Fifty years on, it is time for a critical reflection on the validity of the Single Convention today: a reinterpretation of its historical significance and an assessment of its aims, its strengths and its weaknesses. Indeed, while there is often a tendency to interpret the treaty as part of an unbroken continuum dating back to the first decade of the last century, the Single Convention must rather be seen as a significant change in way the international community approached drug control.

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that the original ambition for the ‘Single’ Convention to become the ‘convention to end all conventions’ failed when the control regime developed further with conventions in 1971 and 1988 giving rise to new inconsistencies within the current global drug control treaty system. This policy briefing analyses the origins and negotiations of the Single Convention, examines the way it broke with the previous drug control system by introducing a more prohibitive ethos, penal obligations, controls on plants and abolition of traditional uses of plants like coca, and concludes that a revision of its outdated provisions is required.


  • Although retaining many of their features, the Single Convention marked a significant break with the commodity control focus of the earlier widely accepted drug control treaties.
  • It shifted the focus of the multilateral drug control framework to incorporate a more prohibitionist approach to the non-medical and non-scientific use of certain substances.
  • This change in perspective was particularly stark in relation to the plant-based substances cannabis, opium and the coca leaf.
  • The Convention introduced widely accepted .penal obligations for Parties to criminalize under their domestic law, unlicensed production and trade and extended the pre-existing control regime to the cultivation of plants
  • It forced ‘developing countries’ to abolish all non-medical and non-scientific uses of the three plants that had for centuries been embedded in social, cultural and religious traditions.
  • The treaty failed to serve one of its original purposes of becoming the ‘single’ convention on all drug related issues of international concern.
  • Later instruments building upon the Convention increased inconsistencies and dissonance within the drug control system.
  • The 50th anniversary of the Convention is an opportune moment to consider treaty reform.

An updated and adapted version of this paper was published as Regime change: Re-visiting the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, in the International Journal of Drug Policy 23 (2012) 72– 81, January 2012.