TNI Expert Seminar on the Classification of Controlled Substances

10 December 2009
Report

The classification of drugs has a profound impact on the lives and well-being of individuals across the world and where the classification is incorrect, people suffer unnecessarily. This is an issue that deserves greater public awareness and greater engagement with citizenry and that where such public awareness is in place it should be galvanised in order to work towards a new democratic answer to this difficult situation.

The Expert Seminar on the Classification of Controlled Substances discussed questions related to the scheduling of controlled substances and reform strategies for criteria applied and agencies involved at the UN and national levels, including options to open the debate about a revision of the conventions. A group of twenty international experts discussed questions related to the scheduling of controlled substances.  This focus was triggered by the following developments:

● The growing tension between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) following conflicting recommendations on drug scheduling and the lack of clarity in their respective mandates;
● The classification of controlled substances as an obstacle to ensuring the availability of essential medicines;
● The dismissal, at both the international and domestic level, of expert, evidence-based recommendations on drug scheduling in favour of politically expedient resolutions; and,
● The efforts of Bolivia to amend the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 as regards coca leaf.

It therefore appeared timely to reflect upon the consistency and effectiveness of the UN treaty system as regards the classification of controlled substances especially with the approach of the fifty year anniversary of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 (‘the 1961 Convention’) and the one hundred year anniversary of the Hague Opium Convention 1912.

At the Expert Seminar participants discussed the history and rationale behind the scheduling systems of the international drug control regime, providing an instructive grounding in the terminology and the legal and scientific issues which underlie the classification of controlled
substances. Three themes were covered at the seminar:

● UN treaty schedules – inconsistencies and options for reform;
● National classification systems – comparing the UK and Dutch models; and,
● Conclusions - achieving more consistency and rationality.

The basic paradigm of the conventions, to protect public health, remains a good starting point. The main problem in national and international drug policy is caused by the political focus on crime rather than health. This focus is hampering a rational effective drug policy. At this seminar much attention was paid to the tension between politics and science. It was clearly an issue many of the scientists and policy makers were struggling with. It was also remarked that in many countries scheduling of substances results in inadequate access of those drugs for medical purposes. The ideal way to schedule drugs and the parameters necessary to classify substances were debated in great detail.

Another interesting focus of the discussion was the role of the INCB, WHO and the CND in the international drug control system. It was for instance suggested that the INCB should be more proactive and inform the CND about discrepancies in the international control system. One major inconsistency that urgently needs to be addressed is the position of cannabis on schedule I and IV of the 1961 Convention. One way to do this would be to have a group of (donor) countries support a WHO evaluation of cannabis and put all evidence on the table. Also the question of the coca leaf was referred to in the discussion as a clear motive for the revision of the classification schemes.

Conclusions

It was considered imperative for the Conventions to be adapted to current scientific knowledge but to achieve this, State Parties would have to take ownership of the system, submitting information to the Secretary General to be sent on to WHO for a critical review to be undertaken of any substance under the 1961 or 1971 Conventions (for example cannabis) or to INCB for any substances under the 1988 Convention. It was felt that this would be a constructive, simple, and non-confrontational way to resolve some of the disputes that have become entrenched, for example, the issue of cannabis and particularly medicinal cannabis.

In the same way it was felt the Conventions could and should be adapted to greater utility. State Parties could seek to amend the Conventions by using the mechanisms contained within them to harmonise the scheduling criteria and processes of the conventions; on the other hand, it was felt by many that this option would require much greater conviction and effort on behalf of the State Party who proposed it and may have less traction taking into account the current political framework.

It was suggested that WHO, INCB, NGOs and others could seek to educate State Parties about the differences of meaning in the Schedules to the Convention and the opportunities contained within them to exempt substances from control and make substances available for licit scientific and medical uses. To actualise this education, it was felt that donors should be encouraged to facilitate the necessary capacity building in the requisite State Parties.

The issue of terminating the Conventions and redrafting the classification and control system afresh was also addressed, perhaps using as a model the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control 2003 or (at the domestic level) the New Zealand 'Class D' regulation framework whereby there is the potential facility to place milder substances onto a 4th schedule whereby they could be bought by adults from special outlets. This was considered to be the most interesting way forward and technical feasible; one would follow the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969 which regulates the making of new treaties, the process could be facilitated by WHO, and on ratification the old Conventions would be put aside. The prospects of success of this option would depend very much, it was felt, on how many State Parties or UN Bodies were supportive, but without intense work or garnering such support, it was agreed that a new omnibus treaty was not perhaps a realistic aim in the current political environment.

Looking at the response of the INCB and the international community more generally to the experiments of particular State Parties outside the ambit of the Conventions (for example the experiments with cannabis supply in the Netherlands and the USA), it was felt that the difficulties experienced by these Parties as a result were not insurmountable and that this was a path that other States could follow if they wanted to reflect more respectfully their own domestic concerns and risk assessments. On the other hand, it was accepted that this was not perhaps an option for less affluent State Parties who are more dependent on donor countries.

The classification of drugs has a profound impact on the lives and well-being of individuals across the world and where the classification is incorrect, people suffer unnecessarily. Participants therefore felt that this is an issue that deserves greater public awareness and greater engagement with citizenry and that where such public awareness is in place (as in the United Kingdom) it should be galvanised in order to work towards a new democratic answer to this difficult situation. It was felt that if change was to occur it would ferment at national level and would not be realised from the top Vienna Level down. As diplomats receive their instructions from the capital, participants considered that lobbying should take place in the domestic context. It was noted that courage at the political level is certainly required, but many felt that politicians will advance if their constituency is supportive and that likewise, legal opinions follow political will. The need to engage public awareness on this issue further was therefore considered paramount.

December 10, 2009
Amsterdam
Transnational Institute