International Drug Policies: International Cooperation

Mathieu Deflem
Stephen Chicoine
University of South Carolina

This is an online copy of a publication in Encyclopedia of Drug Policy, edited by Mark Kleiman and James Hawdon. Sage Publications, 2011.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu and Stephen Chicoine. 2011. "International Drug Policies: International Cooperation." In Encyclopedia of Drug Policy, edited by Mark A. Kleiman and James E. Hawdon. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Narcotic drugs have been the subject of international policies and regulations for many years at various levels of international governance. International drug policies supplement and aim to strengthen relevant policies at the level of national states and foster cooperation among them. Countries that sign international conventions are expected to develop necessary legislation, law enforcement capacities, and administrative measures, in addition to cooperating with one another and with international drug control agencies. The history of international drug policies dates back to the early 20th century and has since steadily evolved and, in most recent times, witnessed certain changes in direction. Among the most important international regulating bodies involved with the control of drugs throughout history are the League of Nations, the United Nations (UN), and several regional bodies, such as the Organization of American States and the European Union.

The League of Nations

Before the formation of the League of Nations after World War I, drugs were already the subject of international control when an international convention was held in Shanghai in 1909. Attended by 13 countries, the conference set the foundation of much of the future of international drug polices by developing a prohibition regime that outlawed the recreational use of drugs (opium and morphine) while additionally regulating their medical use. As a result of the 1909 conference, the First International Opium Convention was drawn up in The Hague in the Netherlands in 1912. Developing a multilateral drug control regime, the Convention included specific provisions outlawing the use of opium, morphine, and cocaine, as well as controlling the manufacture and trade of these substances. The Convention was signed by 41 nations just before the outbreak of World War I.

The League of Nations continued and extended its policies from the international drug agreements that had been developed before World War I. The Versailles Treaty included an international obligation for nations to agree to the 1912 Convention. Subsequently, the International Opium Convention of 1925 created the Permanent Central Board to end the diversion of main narcotics from legal (medical) to illicit (recreational) channels. The export of coca between producing countries and manufacturing countries also became controlled, and the Convention included the first provision regarding the export of cannabis.

In 1931 the Narcotics Limitation Convention required states to estimate their respective needs for narcotics for medical and scientific purposes as the basis for an annual statement of the world narcotics requirements. The Permanent Central Board was authorized to intervene in cases of noncompliance with respect to the limitations that were set on production. Because nations often did not readily cooperate to control the trafficking of drugs, a new international convention was drawn up in 1936 that provided provisions for the prosecution and extradition of drug traffickers as well as for the organization of police cooperation on drug-related offenses.

The United Nations

After the dissolution of the League of Nations and the carnage of World War II, the UN carried on the world's drug control policies. A new international protocol in 1946 summarized the previous drug conventions and transferred all authority to the UN, whose Economic and Social Council created a Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The existing Permanent Central Board and Drug Supervisory Board were combined into the International Narcotics Control Board.

Testifying to the recognition of the drug problem as an international concern among the world's nations, the United Nations was able to draw up a series of drug-control conventions even during the period of international political conflict that marked the Cold War.

In 1948 a UN protocol addressed the problem of synthetic drugs and further expanded the scope of provisions to include any potentially addiction-forming drug that might be created in the future. A 1953 convention prohibited the nonmedical use of all controlled substances, required governments to acquire a monopoly of poppy fields to control cultivation and the production of opium, and authorized some countries to legally produce opium.

The 1953 convention served as the basis for the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, which sought to integrate all previously developed international policies. Focused on plant-based drugs (heroin, cocaine, cannabis, and opium), the Single Convention extended the basic idea of a drug prohibition regime, in which ideally all nations of the world would cooperate, by criminalizing the production, trade, and use of drugs, extending the scope of control to cannabis and coca, and limiting the possession of drugs for medical and scientific purposes. The Convention also extended the 1925 policies on import regulations for poppy and further developed an international system of statistical control that applied to all transactions concerning drugs, and advanced new medical obligations concerning drug addicts.

The 1961 Single Convention also established the International Narcotics Control Board, while the powers of the World Health Organization were increased to oversee the medical and scientific aspects of drugs. A new classification scheme for narcotics was developed, which ordered each illicit drug in respect to its dependence-creating properties, potential level of abuse, and actual or potential therapeutic value. Specifically, Schedule I drugs were subject to all of the controls of the convention. Schedule II drugs could be used for medical purposes and were therefore subject to less control measures. Schedule III concerned exempt drugs such as pharmaceuticals. And Schedule IV specified the amounts of drugs that could be used for medical and scientific purposes, including Schedule I substances (cannabis, for example).

In 1971 a new UN convention, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, expanded the existing policies to all synthetic drugs, specifically psychotropics such as LSD. In 1988 an additional UN convention on drugs was agreed upon to specifically address the illegal trafficking of drugs. The convention was necessitated by the fact that cannabis, heroin, and cocaine abuse had continued to expand and the production of these substances had likewise spread to more nations despite all the existing national and international policies. Because illicit drug trafficking had become a highly profitable criminal activity that was organized on a global scale, new provisions were developed to promote international cooperation aimed at targeting the proceeds of drug traffickers' criminal activity and enhanced methods of international cooperation and the monitoring of substances used for the production of drugs in clandestine labs. Whereas previous conventions had focused on drug control at the supply side, the 1988 convention also required nations that signed the treaty to make drug possession a domestic criminal offense.

Contemporary UN Drug Policies

Despite the wide variety of international policies against narcotics that were formed by the 1990s, a decrease in the use and trafficking of illicit drugs did not take place. In the late 1990s, therefore, the UN once again sought to expand and strengthen international cooperation in drug control, specifically by adopting a political declaration and related action plans at the 1998 special session of the General Assembly.

The 1998 political declaration reaffirmed the UN's commitment to combating drugs in view of the human and social damage that drugs inflict. Besides emphasizing nations' shared responsibilities in the drug problem and re-affirming their respective rights to sovereignty and territorial integrity, the UN declaration for the first time referenced the charter on human rights. The declaration centrally explicated the necessity for international cooperation, including a call for international financial institutions (such as the World Bank) to include drug control measures in their programs, addressing the link between illicit production and trafficking with transnational organized crime and terrorism, and promoting a call to civil society to promote a drug-free society.

The action plans developed by the UN in 1998 addressed a variety of drug-related issues, such as the control of amphetamine-type substances, money laundering, judicial cooperation, demand reduction, and the elimination of narcotic crops. The Declaration on the Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction provides recommendations for national demand reduction polices, and was the first official UN document to discuss harm reduction, specifically by addressing the reduction of consequences of drug use and dependency as well as the prevention of use.

Policies were recommended to engage in a balanced approach, addressing supply and demand aspects of the drug problem, and demand reduction policies that should specifically aim to prevent the use of drugs or reduce the consequences thereof. Demand reduction policies should be integrated into welfare, health promotion, and preventative education programs, while the nations' criminal justice systems should also include means to assist drug abusers.

An important UN action plan concerning International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and on Alternative Development included several new principles of international drug control, including a balanced approach and alternative development. The balanced approach aims at policies both concerning the use and production of drugs, while alternative development was proposed as a better option than eradication in some situations. Among other provisions, alternative development policies involve the creation of social and economic opportunities through rural development and infrastructure, the promotion of democratic values of community participation promoting a civic culture that rejects illicit cultivation, and the inclusion of demand reduction measures. Crop eradication and arrests were deemed appropriate measures in situations involving organized crime, but eradication without the presence of satisfactory alternatives is considered to be hazardous to alternative development programs.

An Action Plan against Illicit Manufacturing, Trafficking, and Abuse of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants also contains innovative elements that were absent in prior UN drug policies. The action plan includes general provisions for demand reduction, concrete obligations for supply reduction, and measures concerning the use of information technology. Member states are asked to engage in data collection and research to inform treatment and prevention programs and to raise public awareness. In relation to the growing relevance of the Internet and the proliferation of information on drug recipes and techniques of abuse, states are called to reduce the flow of this harmful information.

Among the main innovations that emerged from the 1998 UN special session was a so-called Know Your Customer principle to prevent the diversion of precursors from legal to illicit drugs and to promote cooperation between authorities as well as shift some of the burden of control to the industry. The 1988 convention was also extended by advocating stronger control of acetic anhydride (for the making of heroin) and potassium permanganate (for cocaine production).

Finally, methods to promote judicial cooperation were also included in the 1998 action plans, including measures on extradition, mutual legal assistance, transfer of proceedings, and cooperation and training. A few additional notable changes in drug control can be noted with respect to the simplification and harmonization of extradition procedures. Additionally, other potentially important changes concerned the protection of judges, prosecutors, surveillance and law enforcement officials, and witnesses, and the harmonization and simplification of procedures to increase cooperation.

In 2009 the Commission on Narcotic Drugs reviewed the developments since the 1998 special session and put forth a new Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation Towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem. Reconfirming the principles and aims of the previous conventions, this declaration sought to refine the existing international drug control system. More emphasis has been placed on some aspects of international drug control, such as the importance of civil society, human rights, sovereignty and territorial integrity, measures and support services pertaining to the consequences of drug abuse, the linkage between transnational organized crime and corruption, and the development of research and data on all aspects of the drug problem. With respect to demand reduction, the measures that are advocated also include a wide variety of strategies, such as the reduction of abuse and dependence, the promotion of international cooperation among nations, the implementation of a comprehensive drug-control approach that is sensitive to human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the promotion of demand reduction services. Similarly, supply reduction efforts include enhanced cooperation among and coordination of law enforcement operations, the reduction of drug-related violence, the strengthening of anticorruption measures, and the promotion of means to counter money laundering.

American and European Drug Policies

Efforts to promote international cooperation in the control of drugs have also been undertaken at various regional levels in the world. On the American continent, the Organization of American States (OAS) has done the most to promote drug policies. Consisting of 30 sovereign states, the OAS has especially focused on the drug problem because of the differences that exist between nations that are primarily involved in the production of drugs and those where consumption is a great concern. Because the United States primarily faces the problem of drug consumption, its efforts were mostly focused on limiting the supply of drugs. Necessarily involving cooperation with other nations, these policies raised concerns with respect to Latin American sovereignty.

At the OAS 14th General Assembly in 1984, a resolution was adopted that classified drug trafficking as a crime that affects “all mankind.” A specialized meeting, the Inter-American Specialized Conference on Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, was subsequently held in 1986. It constructed a framework of recommended action that could be used to guide member state drug policies. The reduction of drug demand was considered a top priority, while the exchange of information on trafficking organizations and developing common legislation to track down drug traffickers were emphasized on the supply side. An Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission was set up at the OAS 16th General Assembly. The Commission advocated the implementation of the UN 1988 Convention, and it has since, like the UN, diversified its methods to include alternative development measures as well as strategies aimed at demand and supply reduction.

In Europe, the European Union (EU) has made many efforts to promote cooperation on drug policies in view of the differences that exist with respect to drug control among Europe's nations. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which formed the EU, advocated coordination among the national drug policies across the union without attempting to create one common policy. A truly European drug policy was difficult to develop, however, because drug issues pertain to all three of the pillars of the EU (economic policy, foreign relations, and justice and home affairs) and there was no specific provision for the development of an institution that would coordinate the various responsibilities involved.

In 1997 the Amsterdam Treaty was signed that changed various provisions of the Maastricht Treaty and that also paid special attention to combating the drug problem. In order to develop more effective drug control measures, Title IV of the Treaty includes provisions to arrange for checks at Europe's external borders, promote judicial cooperation in criminal matters, ease the freedom of movement within Europe while building effective international cooperation, emphasize efforts against drug trafficking, and advocate cooperation among police, customs, and judicial authorities.

More than is the case in other parts of the world, European drug policies have generally shifted more toward treatment, prevention, and even decriminalization, rather than prohibition. Yet, standardization and efficient cooperation among nations have not always been readily accomplished, further exemplifying the difficulties in forming effective international drug policies that also exist at the global level.

Further Readings
  • Bayer, I. and and H. Ghodse. “Evolution of International Drug Control, 1945–1995.” Bulletin on Narcotics, v.51/1–2 (1999).
  • Bewley-Taylor, David R. “Challenging the UN Drug Control Conventions: Problems and Possibilities.” International Journal of Drug Policy, v.14/2 (2003).
  • Chatwin, Caroline. “Drug Policy Developments Within the European Union.” British Journal of Criminology, v.43 (2003).
  • Dziedzic, Michael J. “The Organization of American States and Drug Control in the Americas.” In International Handbook on Drug Control, S.B. MacDonald and, ed. B. Zagaris, eds., ed. Westport. CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
  • Elvins, Martin. Anti-Drugs Policies of the European Union: Transnational Decision-Making and the Politics of Expertise. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Ghodse, Hamid. International Drug Control Into the 21st Century. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.
  • Pietschmann, Thomas. “A Century of International Drug Control.” Bulletin on Narcotics, v.59/1–2 (2007).