Fifty years after its entering into force, it is time for a critical reflection on the validity of the Single Convention today: a reinterpretation of its historical significance and an assessment of its aims, its strengths and its weaknesses.
The primary objective of this paper is to evaluate whether the drug conventions permit states to experiment with alternatives to the punitive prohibitionist policies that have typified the global approach to combating the negative effects of personal drug use. Because harm minimization encompasses most policies providing alternatives to punitive prohibition, the analysis that follows will focus on comparing the two strategies, in an effort to frame the current debate on drug policy.
Meetings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) are no forum for debate and change. The author, a former senior officer of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), shows how CND meetings are manipulated in the interests of 17 developed countries that largely fund UNDCP – the CND’s ‘civil service’. However, these major donors are not united on policy or on how to apply the UN drug Conventions, so CND decisions reflect the lowest level of disagreement, with major splits on policy ignored.
The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 aimed to eliminate the illicit production and non-medical use of cannabis, cocaine, and opioids, an aim later extended to many pharmaceutical drugs. Over the past 50 years international drug treaties have neither prevented the globalisation of the illicit production and non-medical use of these drugs, nor, outside of developed countries, made these drugs adequately available for medical use.
The Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy was convened to produce the most thorough independent economic analysis of the current international drug control strateg ever conducted. It aims to use this analysis to design a successor strategy to the failed global war on drugs. In so doing it will provide the academic underpinnings for a new international paradigm that promotes human security, public health and sustainable development.
When the United Nations adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, most people did not expect that 50 years later nobody will celebrate the anniversary of global drug prohibition but a group of drug lords. Drug prohibition created a lucrative black market that generates annual revenue of 320 billion dollars for organized crime: who else have a better reason to celebrate?
To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the Beckley Foundation published a public letter calling for a new approach in drug policy. The global war on drugs has failed, and has had many unintended and devastating consequences worldwide. Signed by a group of 60 major thinkers, Nobel Prize winners and celebrities including Sting, Yoko Ono and seven former presidents, this letter calls on members of the public and of Parliament to recognize that "improving our drug policies is one of the key policy challenges of our time."
The global war on drugs has failed and international policy requires radical reform to remove outmoded, unscientific thinking, according to a major new report, Governing The Global Drug Wars, from the London School of Economics and Political Science which has been endorsed by President Santos of Colombia. It explores the “overwhelming” empirical data showing that the current system has failed. It argues that the human cost of pursuing many international policies renders them unjustifiable – from mass incarceration in the US and Asia, to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Russia, and violence dominating Latin America.
Kofi Annan Secretary General of the United Nations, Fernando Henrique Cardoso
05 November 2013
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people around the world die from preventable drug-related disease and violence. Millions of users are arrested and thrown in jail. Globally, communities are blighted by drug-related crime. Citizens see huge amounts of their taxes spent on harsh policies that are not working. But despite this clear evidence of failure, there is a damaging reluctance worldwide to consider a fresh approach. The Global Commission on Drug Policy is determined to help break this century-old taboo. See IDPC Press Release.
Writing in 1996, Norbert Gilmore noted that ‘little has been written about drug use and human rights. Human rights are rarely mentioned expressly in drug literature and drug use is rarely mentioned in human rights literature.’  Almost twenty years later, the literature examining drug control issues through the lens of international human rights law has grown, but the total body of peer reviewed commentary and analysis in this area would barely rank the issue as a footnote in the broader human rights lexicon.
As the call for the decriminalisation of drugs steadily picks up steam worldwide, a new study by the London-based charity Health Poverty Action concludes there has been no significant reduction in the global use of illicit drugs since the creation of three key U.N. anti-drug conventions, the first of which came into force over half a century ago. “Illicit drugs are now purer, cheaper, and more widely used than ever,” says the report, titled Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is Harming the World’s Poorest.
The war on drugs is edging towards a truce. Half of Americans want to lift the ban on cannabis. America’s change of heart has led many to wonder if the UN conventions might be reformed to legalise some drugs and treat the use of others as a problem requiring health measures, not criminal or military ones. But as America has drawn back from prohibition, new drug warriors are stepping up to defend it. Russia is foremost among them. “The Russians have taken over the hard-line role that the US used to play,” says Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute.
In the West few politicians have been ready to admit the drug war’s failure—even as they quietly moderate their policy. They need to be honest with their own voters about the misery it has caused. Only then can they make a good case to the rest of the world that drug addicts need treatment, not prison, and that supply should be managed, not suppressed. A UN meeting next year to take a fresh look at the international conventions that shape national drug laws would be an excellent place to start. The first drug war caused devastation enough. For history to repeat itself would be a tragedy.