The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

Thirteen countries signed the Convention at The Hague, Netherlands. It was the first among a series of multilateral agreements on the issue of narcotic drugs. Between 1912 and 1940, international drug-related treaties mostly addressed the illegal drug trade while ensuring that medical drugs remained available.

In 1961, the United Nations adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (CND). The convention aims to curb drug trafficking and drug abuse through cooperation by various nations. Its goal was to unify drug control treaties into one comprehensive rule on drug use, trade, and production provisions. All participating countries should adjust or establish their national laws to conform to these requirements asked by the convention.

Still, some individual member nations (including the United States) aren't always consistent with the CND's rules. For instance, many U.S. states allow medical and even recreational use and possession of drugs like cannabis.

Below, learn more about the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, including the basics of the treaty and how they apply to member nations.

Historical Background

In 1912, the first international drug control treaty was The International Opium Convention.  The treaties worked to prevent legal drugs from crossing into illegal markets.

But, decades later, the provisions in the International Opium Convention became obsolete. So, they adopted a new Convention in New York on March 25, 1961, The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This Convention combined the existing treaties and detailed the enforcement system for that purpose.

Understanding the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

The convention aims to fight drug use through coordinated intervention of participating nations. The convention seeks to limit activities such as:

  • Consumption
  • Distribution
  • Export
  • Import
  • International trade
  • Possession
  • Non-medical use

Manufacture and production of drugs only for scientific and medical purposes

The 1961 Single Convention and later conventions also intended to fight against illicit trafficking and deter drug traffickers. The Single Convention labels substances that fall within the treaty's scope, which includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Cocaine
  • Opiates
  • Morphine
  • Heroin
  • Cannabis
  • Psychotropic drugs
  • Synthetic drugs
  • Derivatives of these drugs
  • Any drugs with similar narcotic-like effects

Countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Pakistan, which face significant challenges in the drug trade, are pivotal participants in this convention. In recent years, over 184 nations have become parties to the treaty. This means these countries officially accepted the treaty's terms and promised to install its provisions locally. Although many countries try to find ways to bypass the treaty, its foundation against dangerous drugs remains influential today.

Other Treaties That Shaped International Law on Drugs

The commitment binds nations to abide by the international organizations' drug policies. Other than the Single Convention, the other treaties that molded the international laws on illegal drugs are the following:

The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances

In 1971, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances established the control system for psychotropic substances worldwide. This convention diversified and expanded the scope of drug abuse. It also introduced specific controls over certain synthetic drugs according to their potential for abuse and therapeutic value.

UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances

Despite the existence of the 1961 and 1971 conventions, there was a continued rise in drug use worldwide. Also, the global market for illegal drugs expanded into a multi-billion dollar industry. The U.N. Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances focuses on enhanced enforcement of laws, mainly applied to organized crime. With this convention, countries must adopt criminal penalties for activities related to the supply, production, trafficking, and use of drugs. This convention also asked the nations to confiscate the proceeds of the crime. It also helps with extradition between nations for drug-related offenses.

The United Nations System

At the heart of the international drug control system lies the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). Its primary responsibilities include deciding the changes to the amendments or schedules to the existing treaties. It also gives guidance on policies in the form of resolutions. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) picks 53 member states to compose the commission. The member states meet every year at the UN in Vienna, Austria.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB)

The INCB oversees the implementation of the provisions of the conventions. It also monitors the supply of controlled substances for scientific and medical purposes. ECOSOC also picks 13 members for the board. The members include three representatives nominated by the World Health Organization (WHO). If the INCB declares that a country fails to follow the convention, it can name it in its annual report. It can also recommend sanctions, including limiting controlled substances' medical trade.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

The UN General Assembly combined the UN International Drug Control Program and the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division to form the UNODC, established in 1997. The UNODC's responsibility includes advising governments on enforcing drug laws. It also monitors the worldwide drug situation as it relates to the control of drugs. The views of the UNODC set the tone for the management of international drug control. Its primary focus is security and law enforcement rather than promoting human rights and public health.

The World Health Organization (WHO)

The WHO gives the primary scientific evidence to the CND. When looking at changes to amendments or schedules to the treaties, it considers the pieces of evidence submitted. The WHO, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, makes recommendations and reviews through its Expert Committee on Drug Dependence. Its advice serves as a guide on the decisions made by CND.

How Does the Treaty Apply To Individual Nations?

The UN requires participating countries to comply with the conventions. International treaties like the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs are a baseline for laws created in each nation. When a country signs on, it commits to accepting the treaty's provisions and integrating them into domestic law. Still, implementation varies between nations, jurisdictions, and regulatory bodies.

For instance, in the United Kingdom, the provisions of the 1961 Single Convention were in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. The provisions directly relate to the principles stated in the UN conventions.

In the Netherlands, it's illegal to produce, sell, use, or possess cannabis. The country decriminalized it for personal use. The government has circumvented the international law by encouraging a non-enforcement policy. So, the recreational use of cannabis in the Netherlands is widely accepted, even if it's technically illegal.

In Portugal, the government reformed the country's anti-drug laws while remaining consistent with the terms of the Single Convention. In 1971, participants changed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to allow nations to choose not to punish drug users but to offer them treatment, therapy, medical care, rehab, and education. Portugal used these provisions and decriminalized drug use in 2000, offering drug users treatment per the amended Single Convention. Recent reports have shown that drug use has dropped in Portugal since decriminalization.

Drug reform at the national level is possible, as demonstrated by the actions of progressive European and South American nations. Still, true, widespread drug reform is only possible with changes to the Single Convention and its terms.

Drug Scheduling

The United Nations also established drug scheduling that classifies certain drugs into five categories. It classifies substances according to their acceptable medical use and potential for drug abuse and addiction. The following is a schedule of drugs and their descriptions:

Schedule Description and Examples of Drugs

Schedule I Drugs do not have medical use but have a high risk for drug abuse and addiction.

Schedule II Drugs have specific medically acceptable purposes but pose a high potential for drug abuse and addiction. These drugs are also available through prescription.

Schedule III Drugs have low to moderate potential for drug abuse and addiction but pose less danger than controlled substances in Schedule I or II. These drugs are available via prescription. But they are not generally available over the counter for personal use.

Schedule IV Drugs have the potential for medical use and have a low potential for drug use or misuse.

Schedule V Drugs have a low risk of drug abuse.

Exceptions Within the Treaty

There are two significant drug allowances in the Single Convention:

  1. Medicinal purposes
  2. Scientific research

The Single Convention makes it explicitly clear that the use of narcotics for medical care is indispensable. By default, signatory nations can carry out the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a built-in exception for medical drug use. For example, countries may legalize the use of morphine to ease pain.

Remember that international laws serve as foundational guidelines. In many signatory nations, medical cannabis is illegal. In the United States, most states have legalized medical cannabis. But, the federal government continues to officially prohibit its use (while allowing states to install their laws). Furthermore, many states, including California and Massachusetts, have even legalized the recreational use of marijuana despite federal prohibition. The CND also amended the classification of cannabis and cannabis resin recently to reflect their therapeutic value. They are no longer Schedule IV.

Because the states have varying laws, enforcing medical cannabis laws in the United States can lead to complex and confusing situations. For example, federal law specifically prohibits the transportation of narcotic substances. And, as there's no federal recognition of medical cannabis, transporting medical cannabis across state lines technically violates federal law. So, you should never transport medical cannabis across state lines, even with a valid state license. You could face criminal charges for narcotics trafficking.

Future of Drug Policy Reform

The UN drug control system is experiencing an existential crisis in the face of changing political and social landscapes. Remember that the International Drug Control Conventions were written in the 1940s to 1950s when drug markets and consumption were almost unrecognizable compared to today's time.

The legalization and decriminalization of marijuana in the United States, Canada, Uruguay, Mexico, Israel, and Luxembourg, among other countries, broke the consensus on the global prohibition of cannabis plants. So, the call for greater flexibility and modernization of rules is in place. There is also an increasing polarization of rules between reform-oriented regions such as the Americas and Europe to enforcement-led nations such as China and Russia.

The United Nations General Assembly is considering making changes as more countries amend their drug laws. These broader interpretations of the Single Convention have become more prominent as drug policies become increasingly progressive worldwide.

Seek Legal Advice on Drug Laws

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs laid the foundation for various drug laws in the United States. But understanding its rules is challenging. Often, there's a thin line between what you can use for medical and scientific purposes and an illegal drug.

It is best to consult a criminal law attorney if you encounter legal issues related to drug laws. They can assist you with understanding state laws and the international conventions applied domestically. With their expertise, they can guide you through how the rules affect your case. Contact a criminal law attorney near you.

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