Geo-political and cultural constraints on international drug control treaties

Craig Reinarman
International Journal of Drug Policy (Volume 14, Issue 2)
Special Issue on the UNGASS Mid-term Review
April 2003

publicationIt is a noble and worthy step to attempt to change the drug control treaties, but this is likely to take a long time and it may not be the essential starting place of reform. The amount of flexibility in the treaties is only partly a function of treaty language, for this language is always interpreted, and interpretations can vary depending upon how many states actively argue for more flexibility.

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There are procedures whereby nation states can qualify their support for aspects of the treaties they find especially onerous or at odds with their own constitutional principles or legal cultures. In short, the treaties may afford more flexibility, and more types of flexibility, than reform-minded states have thus far used.

It seems crucial to keep asserting the principle of national autonomy. American conservatives are fond of saying that public policies should not be imposed from the national government but rather devised at that level of government closest to the problem. What progress has been made toward more effective and humane drug policies has been made in spite of the international conventions. Whether the treaties are amended or ignored, drug policies that work well are likely to be those democratically devised in each country by those most knowledgeable about its unique problems and needs, history and culture.

Under the heading of carving out new space within the treaties, there is also something to be said for the Dutch approach. Even if the treaties may be read as requiring that use of prohibited drugs remains formally a criminal offense, the Dutch have shown that treaties cannot prevent national or local governments from making enforcement a low priority.

Finally, with all due respect to bureaucratic intransigence and the political power of the prohibitionist bloc, public discourse still matters in the long run. Drug control treaties are always carefully couched in terms of the public good. But as more of the world’s voters learn that existing international drug control conventions often exacerbate drug problems, create organised crime, repress powerless groups, cost a fortune, and still generally fail on their own terms, their political legitimacy will atrophy.