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The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

In 1961, the United Nations drew up a treaty known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (CND) to curb drug trafficking and drug abuse. The treaty makes narcotic drug production and possession illegal, and it details an enforcement system for that purpose. For example, different classes of drugs are organized and identified as either Schedule I, II, III, or IV, and are penalized accordingly.

Still, some of the individual member nations (including the United States) aren't always consistent with the CND's rules. For instance, many U.S. states allow for the medical and even recreational use of cannabis. Learn more about the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, including the basics of the treaty and how they apply to member nations, below.

Treaty Basics

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs lists substances that come under the effects of the treaty, including but not limited to cocaine, opium, morphine, heroine, cannabis, psychotropic drugs, derivatives of these drugs, and any drugs with similar narcotic-like effects. Over 184 nations have become party to the treaty, which is to say that they have officially accepted the terms of the treaty and have implemented or have promised to implement the treaty domestically.

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs has come under fire in recent years as an ineffective relic of a time when governments commonly believed that the illegal drug trade could be curbed by regulation and police enforcement. The failure of anti-drug systems worldwide has led to some pushback, however. Though many nations have tried to circumvent the treaty in order to legalize drugs, the anti-drug system perpetuated by the treaty has largely continued into the present.

How Does the Treaty Apply to Individual Nations?

International treaties like the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs are best understood as a baseline for laws created in each individual nation. Each nation that accepts the treaty as a signatory must implement the treaty as a domestic law -- they can make the law stricter, but they can't make the law less strict. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs casts its shadow over every nation that has accepted it as binding international law. In other words, it can't be violated, reformed, or ignored by any individual nation.

Still, the results of implementation vary wildly between nations. For example, the Netherlands and the United States are both parties to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but have implemented the treaty differently. In the United States, federal implementation of the Single Convention (known as the Controlled Substances Act) makes it a crime to possess even small amounts of narcotics, including marijuana. Some American commentators have argued that, even if Congress wanted to promote national drug reform, it has its hands tied, since the courts are bound by international law to implement the treaty (which, of course, criminalizes production, sale, use, and possession).

Whether this is the true reason for the United States’ conservative position on drug reform is up for debate. In the Netherlands, for example, it's illegal to produce, sell, use, or possess cannabis, but the government has circumvented the international law by encouraging a policy of non-enforcement. Thus, 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, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was changed to allow nations to choose not to punish drug users, but to offer them treatment, therapy, medical care, rehab, and education instead. Portugal took advantage of these provisions and opted to decriminalize drug use in 2000, offering drug users treatment as per amended Single Convention. Recent reports have shown that drug use has dropped in Portugal since decriminalization was implemented.

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

Core Exceptions

There are two major drug allowances in the Single Convention:

  1. Medicinal purposes, and
  2. Scientific research.

In fact, the Single Convention makes it explicitly clear that the use of narcotics for medical care is indispensable. By default, then, signatory nations can implement 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 alleviate pain.

Remember that international law is a baseline. In many signatory nations, medical cannabis is illegal. In the United States, most states have legalized the use of medical cannabis, but the federal government continues to officially prohibit its use (while allowing states to implement their own laws). Furthermore, a growing number of states, including California and Massachusetts, have even legalized the recreational use of marijuana, despite federal prohibition.

Because the states have varying laws, the enforcement of medical cannabis laws in the United States can lead to difficult and often confusing situations. For example, federal law specifically prohibits transportation of narcotic substances, and as there’s no federal recognition of medical cannabis, transporting medical cannabis across state lines is technically a violation of federal law. Therefore, you should never transport medical cannabis across state lines, even with a valid state license -- you may be found criminally liable for narcotics trafficking.

Where Is Reform Headed?

Despite mounting pressure from international organizations looking to change the Single Convention so that reform can be implemented at the national level, the treaty remains with its provisions largely intact. Circumventing the treaty, rather than outright rejecting or reforming it, seems to be the primary strategy of many reform-minded nations and organizations in recent years.

Since the 1970s, several organizations have argued that illegal possession as described in Article 36 of the Single Convention is limited to possession for the purposes of trafficking or dealing drugs, as opposed to personal use. These broader interpretations of the Single Convention have become more prominent as drug policies become increasingly more progressive worldwide, and as nations look for ways to reform their drug laws without violating the treaty.

Have A Drug Law Issue? Get Legal Help

While the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs created an international basis for many U.S. drug laws, there have been efforts to reform those laws especially among the different states. To learn more about the drug laws in your state or to obtain help with a criminal case, you should reach out to an experienced drug crime attorney in your area.

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