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The UN Conventions
Cindy Fazey
The first international convention dates to 1912, The Hague Convention, which sought to regulate the trade in opium.  The present system of worldwide drug control is regulated by three international conventions.  These are the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended by the 1972 Protocol, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.  As of January 2003 179 states are parties to the Single Convention, or are parties to the Convention as amended by the 1972 Protocol.  The number of nations signatory to the 1971 and 1988 Conventions is 172 and 166 respectively.

The bedrock of the global drug control regime is the Single Convention, so called because it largely replaced the previous international agreements that had been developing piecemeal since the early years of the twentieth century.  The prohibitionist character of the Convention is beyond doubt.  Signatory nations are obliged to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs.  The Convention pays particular attention to plant based drugs such as opium, heroin, coca, cocaine and cannabis. It places more than one hundred illicit substances in four schedules, that is to say lists of drugs or preparations that are under the Control of the Convention, with drugs being grouped according to their perceived dependence creating properties.

Constructed as a companion instrument to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention came about as a result of a growing global concern for the harmful effects of psychotropic substances, including synthetic drugs such as amphetamines, barbiturates and LSD.  In a similar fashion to that of the 1961 Convention, psychotropic substances are also categorized in four schedules.  Classification is determined according to dependence creating properties, the potential level of abuse and the therapeutic value of the substances.  Any substances included in the four schedules must be licensed by the governments for manufacture, trade and distribution with supply or dispensing only being possible under legal authority.

The 1988 Convention was designed to deal with the growth of international trafficking in illegal substances in the 1970s and 1980s, since the earlier international instruments only dealt with the issue in a limited fashion. It provides comprehensive measures against drug trafficking, including provisions on money laundering, asset seizure, agreements on mutual legal assistance and the diversion of precursor chemicals.  In a similar manner to its sister treaties, annexed to the 1988 Convention are two lists, in this case termed tables rather than schedules.  These tables list substances frequently used in the illicit manufacture of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances.  The Convention also tightened the control regime considerably by moving it to incorporate drug demand.  Both the 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol and the 1971 Conventions required application of criminal policy measures only on the supply side of the drug problem. While the 1988 Convention was mainly concerned with the illicit supply of drugs, one paragraph concerned itself with the individual drug user.  Article 3 (2) requires each party to make the possession of drugs for personal consumption a criminal offence under their domestic law, and as the Commentary on the United Nations Convention against Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances 1988 suggests, this “amounts in fact also to a penalisation of personal consumption.” (United Nations, 1998: 80).


This article has been kindly allowed for publication on Mama Coca by DRUGLINK.

Druglink is a bi-monthly magazine for all those with a professional interest in drug problems and responses to them. The news pages keep you informed about important current developments. Features articles provide in-depth analysis of drugs issues - local, national and international.

You will find the views and experiences of researchers, policy makers, front-line workers and drug users. Druglink reviews relevant publications, and lists new books, videos and events to keep you up to date with the latest literature, resources, courses and conferences.

DrugLink is published by DrugScope, the UK NGO on drug issues. Working closely with service providers and agencies across the drugs field, DrugScope is one of the leading centres for applied research on drug issues in the UK. Increasingly involved in policy analysis, DrugScope has been calling for a thorough evaluation and review of the UN drug conventions. The articles included in the special supplement are part of these efforts in linking domestic work with an international agenda.

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