The three major international drug control treaties are mutually supportive and complementary. An important purpose of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances codify internationally applicable control measures in order to ensure the availability of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances for medical and scientific purposes, and to prevent their diversion into illicit channels and include general provisions on trafficking and drug use. The 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances significantly reinforced the obligation of countries to apply criminal sanctions to combat all the aspects of illicit production, possession and trafficking of drugs.

  • International Law and Drug Policy Reform

    Report of a GDPO/ICHRDP/TNI/WOLA Expert Seminar
    Final report of proceedings
    July 2015

    Drug policy reform is currently higher on the international agenda than it has been in recent memory. With a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs set for 19-21 April 2016, the prominence of this issue will further increase. Significant legal and policy reforms at the national level have taken place in recent years that pose considerable challenges to the international legal framework for drug control, and beg important questions regarding states’ international legal obligations.


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  • Illegal drugs laws: Clearing a 50-year-old obstacle to research

    David Nutt
    PLoS Biology 13(1)
    January 27, 2015

    The United Nations drug control conventions of 1960 and 1971 and later additions have inadvertently resulted in perhaps the greatest restrictions of medical and life sciences research. These conventions now need to be revised to allow neuroscience to progress unimpeded and to assist in the innovation of treatments for brain disorders. In the meantime, local changes, such as the United Kingdom moving cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2, should be implemented to allow medical research to develop appropriately.

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  • Marijuana legalization is an opportunity to modernize international drug treaties

    Wells Bennett and John Walsh
    Brookings Center for Effective Public Management
    October 2014

    Two U.S. states have legalized recreational marijuana, and more may follow; the Obama administration has conditionally accepted these experiments. Such actions are in obvious tension with three international treaties that together commit the United States to punish and even criminalize activity related to recreational marijuana. The administration asserts that its policy complies with the treaties because they leave room for flexibility and prosecutorial discretion.

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  • State Department official calls for 'flexibility' on drug control treaties

    The Huffington Post (US)
    Tuesday, October 14, 2014

    Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield called for "flexible" interpretations of international drug control treaties at the United Nations in New York City, citing marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. Brownfield's remarks were the third time this year he has made such a call. The high-profile venue underscores the pressure that state legalization efforts have put on the U.S. to allow other countries to amend strict, decades-old international drug control treaties. However, Brownfield's claim that current treaties are flexible enough to allow marijuana legalization is at odds with the text of the treaties themselves, said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

  • US signals shift in international drug policy

    InSight Crime
    Monday, October 13, 2014

    In a press conference at the United Nations in New York on October 9, US official William Brownfield laid the groundwork for a new US approach to international drug policy, pointing to the changing political landscape on drug regulation in the Americas. Brownfield set out the United States' position on international drug policy, including to "accept flexible interpretation" of the UN Drug Control conventions. (See also: Brownfield's Statement to the Third Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations and Reforming the global drug-control system: The stakes for Washington)

  • Reforming the global drug-control system: The stakes for Washington

    Washington's new narrative defends the integrity of the UN drug control conventions, while allowing more flexible interpretations
    Martin Jelsma
    Friday, June 27, 2014

    The extent to which the ongoing drug-control reforms across the Americas are pushing the boundaries of the global legal framework laid down in three UN drug-control conventions has become a delicate issue. The decriminalization of possession for personal use in several Latin American countries and the establishment of a supervised injection room in Vancouver, Canada have already triggered protracted legal disputes with the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the quasi-judicial organ for the conventions’ implementation.

  • Scheduling in the international drug control system

    Christopher Hallam Dave Bewley-Taylor Martin Jelsma
    Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 25
    June 2014

    While often viewed as an obscure technical issue, the problem of scheduling lies at the core of the functioning of the international drug control system. Scheduling – the classification of a substance within a graded system of controls and restrictions, or 'schedules' – must take place in order for a substance to be included in the international control framework, and determines the type and intensity of controls to be applied. For this reason, the topic is of central importance.

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  • The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition

    The History of Cannabis in the UN Drug Control System and Options For Reform
    Dave Bewley-Taylor Tom Blickman Martin Jelsma
    Transnational Institute / Global Drug Policy Observatory
    March 2014

    The cannabis plant has been used for spiritual, medicinal and recreational purposes since the early days of civilization. In this report the Transnational Institute and the Global Drug Policy Observatory describe in detail the history of international control and how cannabis was included in the current UN drug control system. Cannabis was condemned by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs as a psychoactive drug with “particularly dangerous properties” and hardly any therapeutic value.

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    application-pdfRésumé en français (PDF)
    application-pdfDownload the press release (PDF)

  • The US incapacity to enforce federal drug laws - and the global consequences

    Francisco Thoumi
    Open Democracy (US)
    Friday, November 1, 2013

    The US drug policy is changing, pitting states against federal law. This essay explores this inner friction of contradictory drug legislation, and what it may mean for the international drug control regime, itself a result of US drug policy. (4,400 words)

  • Roadmaps for Reforming the UN Drug Conventions

    Robin Room & Sarah MacKay
    Beckley Foundation
    December 2012

    The three UN Drug Conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988 currently impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ prohibitionist approach to drug policy throughout the world. This new report explains in detail how the Conventions could be amended in order to give countries greater freedom to adopt drug policies better suited to their special needs.

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