International Drug Agencies

Shannon McDonough
Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in Encyclopedia of Drug Policy, edited by Mark Kleiman and James Hawdon. Sage Publications, 2011. Also online from the publisher.

Please cite as: McDonough, Shannon and Mathieu Deflem. "International Drug Agencies." Pp. 391-395 in Encyclopedia of Drug Policy, edited by Mark A. Kleiman and E. James Hawdon. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Since the early 20th century, international drug control has evolved to include many specialized international agencies, including administrative agencies involved in the monitoring of the international drug situation and the formation of international drug policy, law enforcement organizations concerned with drug-related crime control, and informal groups that seek to exert influence on international drug policies. Besides the unilateral involvement of individual nations (especially the United States), both regional organizations (e.g., the European Union, Europol) and international organizations (e.g., the United Nations [UN], Interpol) are part of the international drug control system.

Historical Background

The development of an international drug regime can be traced back to the early 20th century with attempts to control the supply of opium entering China when Britain and China signed a treaty in 1906 to limit the opium trade. In 1908, an international commission concerning the opium trade met in Shanghai. Subsequently, in 1912, the First International Opium Convention was agreed upon. After World War I, the League of Nations assumed responsibility for supervising international drug control. The first meeting of the League of Nations established an Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs to supervise the implementation of international drug control agreements and to coordinate government cooperation. This Advisory Committee would serve as the predecessor of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

In 1928 the League of Nations established a Permanent Central Board, which monitored the production, manufacturing, storage, and consumption of illicit drugs. In 1931 a Drug Supervisory Board was created to monitor drug supplies in each country.

After World War II, the UN assumed responsibilities of international drug control. In 1946 the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) was established to serve as an advisor to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The ECOSOC was created as the supervisor and coordinator of the 14 specialized UN agencies dealing with international social and economic issues. The Council also served as the main forum for formulating policy recommendations for Member States and the UN drug regime.

Over time, the UN organized additional international conventions on drug control that established additional agencies. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs established the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) through a merger of the Permanent Central Board and the Drug Supervisory Board. The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances created the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC) with the purpose of supervising programs aimed at combating the growing manufacturing and trafficking of illegal substances.

In 1991 the UN International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) was created through the merger of the civil services of three existing UN bodies involved in drug policy implementation: (1) the DND, established in 1946 by the League of Nations international civil service, which managed the drug control system; (2) the UNFDAC; and (3) the Secretariat of the INCB.

In 1997 a merger between the UNDCP and the Center for International Crime Prevention (CICP; formerly known as the Crime Branch) created the Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. In 2002 it was renamed the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which functions to assist UN member states in the coordination and implementation of drug control legislation recommended under UN conventions.

UN Administrative Agencies

Most administrative agencies involved in international drug control reside within the UN administrative hierarchy. ECOSOC functions as the main organizing body of the UN's 14 specialized agencies, functional commissions, and five regional commissions. ECOSOC oversees a number of specialized agencies, including those UN agencies involved in drug control, such as the CND, UNODC, the INCB, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) is the UN's main drug policy-making agency and oversees both the INCB and the UNDCP. Both the CND and the UNDCP are funded by the 17 Major Donors, which include the European Community (EC), Canada, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, France, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Spain, Turkey, Belgium, and Ireland. The CND may only pass resolutions of which the cost has been evaluated. If the regular budget does not provide enough funds for the implementation of the resolutions, funds must come from one of the Major Donors although they are under no obligation. The Major Donors, therefore, play an influential role in international drug control policy and organization.

The CND's function was expanded in 1990 to provide policy guidance to the UNDCP and to oversee the UN's Global Programme of Action (GPA) and its System-Wide-Action Plan (SWAP). The CND began with 15 country members and currently has 53 member countries. Other organizations present at CND meetings but that do not exercise any direct policy or financial control are a number of international and regional organizations such as Interpol, the World Customs Organization (WCO), the UN Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), Europol, and the Organization of American States (OAS), among others.

The CND is further responsible for the establishment of various regional bodies involved in the monitoring of drug trafficking trends, the coordination of regional cooperation and sharing of criminal intelligence on drug trafficking, and the identification of the best practices in training law enforcement personnel. These agencies include the Subcommission on Illicit Drug Traffic and Related Matters in the Middle East (established in 1973) as well as four similar regional bodies founded in Asia and the Pacific in 1985, Latin American and the Caribbean in 1990, and Europe in 1990. These agencies help the heads of National Drug Law Enforcement Agencies (HONLEAs) to report to the CND through a secretariat from the UNODC.

The UN Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) became the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2002 after it merged with the Centre for International Crime Prevention (CICP) in 1997. The UNODC implements CND drug policy and acts as the secretariat for the CND. While implementation cannot be enforced, the UNODC facilitates implementation of UN drug policy by providing support to member states in the form of laboratory work, support and training for law enforcement agencies, and facilitating international cooperation. It also works closely with other UN agencies involved in projects related to drug trafficking, such as alternative development programs run by the UN Development Organization. The UNODC has 22 regional and field offices covering 150 countries.

The UNODC encompasses a Scientific Section that develops initiatives aimed at improving drug characterization and impurity profiling methods standardized by the CND in order to control the manufacturing and trafficking of synthetic drugs. The Scientific Section of the UNODC was in 1946 initially established as the UN Narcotics Laboratory to research the origins of opium production. International drug control requires the ability to identify the sources of supplies of synthetic drugs or precursor chemicals, drug trafficking routes, distribution patterns, and any links that exist between different samples of seized drugs. The Scientific Section of the UNODC also trains personnel in methods of drug characterization and impurity profiling and promotes cooperation in the sharing of methods and information related to drug profiling.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is a body of 13 individual experts on subjects relevant to drug control (including pharmacologists, pharmacists, lawyers, police officers, and medical doctors). In contrast to the CND and the UNODC, the INCB is funded by the UN's regular central budget rather than by the Major Donors. The INCB's primary function is to ensure cooperation among governments so that drug supplies and manufacturing meet legitimate medical or scientific demand while suppressing illicit drug trafficking and manufacturing, including the control of precursor chemicals. The INCB is a monitoring body for the implementation of UN conventions on drug control, but it has no formal powers of enforcement. The INCB submits an annual report on its activities to ECOSOC through the CND.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is also involved in the international drug control system. Specifically, the WHO's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, established in 1949, is obligated under UN international conventions to provide primary scientific and medical advice on drugs including dependency potential, abuse liability, medical usefulness, and to advise which schedule a drug should be placed under, if any, to fulfill international drug control conventions. The committee also makes recommendations to the CND regarding which control measures should exist for certain substances.

Other Administrative Agencies

Outside the UN, other international administrative organizations are also involved in the international drug control system. For example, the World Customs Organization facilitates compliance with international drug control conventions. Located in Brussels, the WCO was established in 1952 as the Customs Co-Operation Council and renamed in 1994. The WCO works on projects and task forces with the UNODC and the INCB as well as with Interpol and Europol to facilitate international cooperation and adherence to UN drug conventions and to promote efficient communication among member customs organizations. It consists of a secretariat with over 100 international offices, technical experts, and support staff, regional intelligence liaison offices (RILOs), and national contact points of member administrations. The national contact points collect seizure data at a national level that are entered into the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) to be shared with RILOs and other drug control agencies. The WCO currently includes 175 customs agencies, which process over 98 percent of world trade.

Another organization outside of the UN, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), was established in 1986 by the Organization of American States (OAS) as that organization's anti-drug agency. It aims to foster cooperation and coordination among OAS member states in drug control operations through the formation of action programs. CICAD also maintains a database of information on illicit trafficking including arrests, prosecutions, and convictions. CICAD currently has 34 member states from the Western Hemisphere.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) was established in 1993 to provide the European Union (EU) and its member states with information on Europe's drug problem, including data needed to draw up informed drug laws and to identify the most efficient and effective practices for various drug control operations. The EMCDDA systematically collects information on drugs from EU Member States and analyzes the data to provide a more complete picture of the drug situation in Europe. The center focuses mainly on Europe, but also works with drug control agencies across the globe through the exchange of information and expertise. It also works closely with other European agencies involved in drug control including the EU Council's Horizontal Drugs Group, which was established in 1997 to coordinate and prepare EU drug policy.

Law Enforcement Agencies

In addition to administrative agencies, there are two major international agencies involved in the policing of international drug crimes: the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and the European Police Office (Europol).

Interpol is an international police organization created in 1923 that currently brings together police agencies from 188 countries. International drug control is one of Interpol's major goals and is addressed through its Criminal Organizations and Drugs Sub-Directorate. This agency aims to assist all national and international law enforcement organizations involved in drug control in a variety of ways. It organizes the collection, collation, analysis, and dissemination of information related to drug control that can be used in international drug investigations. In 2005 Interpol established the Drugs Intelligence Unit to issue drug intelligence alerts and reports to keep up with developments in drug crimes, such as new methods of trafficking. It also fosters cooperation and coordination in drug investigations involving member agencies from two or more countries. Furthermore, it organizes regional and global conferences on certain drug topics in order to determine the extent of a specific drug problem and to provide information on the most recent developments in investigative techniques.

Interpol also plays an active role in the training of law enforcement for drug investigations. In 2007 the Interpol Anti-Heroin Smuggling Training Centre was opened outside of Moscow to train about 2,000 police officers a year. In addition to relationships with national law enforcement agencies, Interpol also works closely with other international agencies involved in drug control including the UN and the World Customs Organization.

Interpol has many ongoing projects aimed at international drug control. For example, Project Drug@net handles drug trafficking via the Internet. Project COCAF began in 2006 in order to monitor commercial air routes used to traffic cocaine between Africa and Europe. Project White Flow monitors and attempts to disrupt cocaine smuggling from South America to West Africa by criminal organizations that use private aircraft and sea freighters.

Europol, the European Police Office, was established by the Treaty on European Union, or the Maastricht Treaty, in 1992 and began limited operations in 1994 as the Europol Drugs Unit. After the Europol Convention was ratified in 1998, the European Drugs Unit was formally transferred into Europol, which began full operations in 1999.

Drug trafficking is one of Europol's main concerns with the Drugs Unit as the most active part of Europol's organization. The Drugs Unit organizes numerous projects that aim to facilitate cooperation in drug investigations involving EU member states and to combat the production and trafficking of heroin, cocaine, synthetic drugs, and precursor chemicals. Project COLA, for instance, is concerned with cocaine trafficking from Latin America, in particular Colombia, to EU member states, including investigations of criminal groups engaged in trafficking toward and within the EU. Project MUSTARD similarly investigates heroin trafficking and related crimes of Turkish and associated criminal organizations.

The Synthetic Drugs Section of Europol's Drugs Unit oversees a number of projects concerned specifically with the profiling of synthetic drugs and precursor substances. For example, the Synthetic Drugs Section created the Europol Ecstasy Logo System that collects information on seizures including the logos or markings on the drugs, which allow for the matching of drugs' origins from different seizures. Europol also maintains the Europol Illicit Laboratory Comparison System, which contains information on drug production, storage, and dump sites.

Besides the international organizations Interpol and Europol, it is to be noted that numerous national enforcement agencies also take on a host of international activities that affect many nations across the world. Among the internationally most significant of these national agencies is the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the United States. The DEA has several hundred officers stationed in 87 foreign offices in 63 countries. The agency has also established the International Drug Enforcement Conference (IDEC), which is held once a year to share drug-related information to aid in the implementation of effective strategies and to foster a coordinated approach to law enforcement efforts aimed at combating international drug trafficking.

Originally set up as a conference forum for countries from the Western Hemisphere, the IDEC has become a global forum with 91 countries in attendance at IDEC XXVI in 2008. The DEA functions as the IDEC's permanent Secretariat through the Office of International Programs. The DEA also cooperates with other agencies involved in international drug control such as Interpol, Europol, and the UN.

Informal International Groups

A number of informal international groups play a major role in international drug control. First, the Major Donors, which provide most of the funding for the CND and the UNODC, have major influence on drug control policy and the projects approved and maintained by these UN agencies. They meet twice a year to discuss projects of the UNODC and to ultimately make decisions about which will be funded.

Second, the countries known as the G8, formerly known as the G6 and G7, also play an active role in international drug control. The G8 is a group of eight highly industrialized nations and provides an informal forum for the discussion of global issues and problems, including international drug control. In 1989 the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) was created at the G7 Summit in Paris. The purpose of FATF is to promote policies that combat money laundering, which is a major dimension of drug trafficking.

The G8 is also involved in the Dublin Group, which was created by the EU at the 1990 meeting of the European Committee to Combat Drugs (CELAD) in Dublin, Ireland. The Dublin Group is an informal group interested in international drug problems and the exchanging and analyzing of relevant information. The Dublin Group makes recommendations to member states and the UNODC on drug policy. The Dublin Group meets twice a year in Brussels. The Egmont Group emerged from the FATF in 1995. It was established by G7 to aid in the exchange of information between financial intelligence units (FIUs) in over 100 countries to combat money laundering and the funding of terrorism.

The wealth of international agencies in the world of international drug control indicates the peculiar difficulties with administering and enforcing a global or regional drug regime. It also poses additional issues of cooperation among the various international agencies, which further contributes to a complex picture of agencies at multiple levels of international government.

Further Readings
  • Carstairs, Catherine. “The Stages of the International Drug Control System.” Drug and Alcohol Review, v.24 (2005).
  • Drug Enforcement Administration. “The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Website.” http:/ / dea/ index.htm (Accessed March 2010).
  • European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. “The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.” http:/ / index.cfm (Accessed March 2010).
  • Fazey, Cindy. “The Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the United Nations International Drug Control Programme: Politics, Policies, and Prospect for Change.” International Journal of Drug Policy, v.14 (2003).
  • Fazey, Cindy. “International Policy on Illicit Drug Trafficking: The Formal and Informal Mechanisms.” Journal of Drug Issues (Fall 2007).
  • Haberfeld, Maria and William H. McDonald. “International Cooperation in Policing.” In Handbook of Transnational Crime and Justice, P. Reichel, ed., ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005.
  • Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission. http:/ / EN/ default.asp (Accessed March 2010).
  • International Narcotics Control Board. “International Narcotics Control Board Website.” http:/ / (Accessed March 2010).
  • Interpol. “Interpol Official Site.” http:/ / www.interpol .int/ default.asp (Accessed March 2010).
  • Jelsma, Martin. “Drugs in the UN System: The Unwritten History of the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs.” International Journal of Drug Policy, v.14 (2003).
  • United Nations Economic and Social Council. http:/ / en/ ecosoc/ about (Accessed June 2010).
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. http:/ / www. (Accessed March 2010).
  • World Customs Organization. http:/ / (Accessed March 2010).

See related writings on international policing.