Drug and Alcohol Review 18:305-315, 1999.




Robin Room and Angela Paglia



            The core institutions and scope of the international drug control system are described.  The system has grown in participation and particularly in scope and ambitions since it was studied in the early 1970s by Bruun and colleagues.  Its premises are notably in conflict with the currently dominant ideologies of a free-market global economy, although as earlier the U.S. plays a dominant role in the drug control system.  At a time when it is seen as a failure in its primary aims both from inside and from outside, defenses of the system have ranged from rousing rhetorical appeals to efforts to "de-sensationalize" the issues.


key words: drug control, international narcotics control, drug conventions



            In the present paper we describe and analyze some of the features of the international drug control system.  In this analysis, we draw on a variety of materials: a study of the system as it was a quarter-century ago [1]; a new round of historical and policy analyses relevant to the system which have begun to appear, documents from the system itself, and limited participant observation.

            Our approach is necessarily selective.  We describe the development and scope of the core institutions of the system, the disparity between its governing and assumptions and the dominant ideology of the global economy, the special role of the U.S. in the system, the effectiveness and effects of the system, and the responses of the system to its overall failure in controlling supplies of illicit drugs.


Core institutions of the international drug control system

            A specific set of institutions and organizational arrangements, first established early in the 20th century, has the aim of controlling the world supply of certain classes of psychoactive drugs.  At the heart of the system are four international agencies:

            The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), with an elected membership of 53 nations, comes under the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN, and serves as the political governing structure of the international drug control system.  The system’s charter documents are three international conventions on drugs: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (amended in 1972), the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.   The Commission holds an annual two-week long meeting in Vienna to review activities and developments under the Conventions, and to adopt resolutions.  The meeting is attended by several hundred members of delegations from the nations on the Commission, from other nations, and from intergovernmental bodies and accredited nongovernmental agencies.

            The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is composed of individual members chosen in their personal capacity, rather than as representatives of countries.  Those with technical competence in the drug field are a minority of the membership.   It serves as the control body for legal (pharmaceutical) markets in controlled drugs, offers some technical assistance to national control efforts, and reports annually on the world drug situation.

            The third element, the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), has been located in Vienna since 1991, when it replaced the old Division of Narcotic Drugs and the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control. It serves as the secretariat for the CND and the INCB, as well as carrying on an ambitious international program of work.  In 1972 there were 49 staff in the predecessor organizations, and 78 in 1976/77 [2].  In 1997, the staff altogether numbered about 200 -- 140 staff at headquarters (down from 270 in 1995) and 60 international staff in the field.  Seven of these serve as the secretariat for the CND, and 28 for the INCB.  The revised regular budget of the UNDCP for the biennium 1996/97 totalled just under USD $70 million, and the project budget for the same period was just over $109 million [3].  The project budget depends on a narrow base of donors; in 1994/95 90% of it was derived from eight donors (seven countries and the European Commission).[4]

            In September 1997 the UNDCP and the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division were brought together by the UN Secretary-General into a single Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, located in Vienna and headed by Pino Arlacchi, who has the status of an Under-Secretary-General (paragraphs 130-142 in [5]).

            The World Health Organization (WHO), through its Programme on Substance Abuse (formerly through its Mental Health Division), has the duty under the international conventions to determine whether and in which category drugs should be put under international control.  It also conducts its own programs of research, coordination and assistance in public health approaches to drugs, including tobacco and alcohol.  WHO's role specifically in the international control system is the responsibility of a single staff member and an expert committee meeting every two years.

            In general, the international narcotics control system has grown in complexity and responsibility over the years, although, as the UNDCP staffing figures reveal, its bureaucracies  suffered through the recent downsizing throughout the UN system.


The membership of the Commission

            When the Commission was set up in 1946, replacing prewar organs, it had 15 states as members.  Membership grew to 21 in 1961, to 24 in 1966, to 30 in 1972 and to 53 in 1991.  An official description of the UNDCP's mission [6] notes that "that growth reflected the need to broaden the Commission's representational base to keep pace with the worldwide expansion of the drug abuse phenomenon".  Currently, the Commission has 11 members from Africa, 12 from Asia, 10 from Latin America and Caribbean, 6 from "Eastern Europe", and 14 from "Western Europe and other" (a designation which includes Turkey, Australia, Canada and the U.S.).

            While 83 states have been members of the Commission at some time since 1946, there is a core of 36 states which have been on the Commission for 16 years or longer, all but 5 of which are on the Commission in 1997 or will return to it in 1998.  This core includes 5 countries from each of Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, 9 Asian countries, and 12 from "Western Europe and Other" (see Table 1; data from [7]).

            The continuity actually extends back further.  The listing in Bruun et al. [1:303-307] of "influential persons in international narcotics control 1921-1971" lists 70 persons from 27 countries.  Twenty-two of these countries (which accounted for 64 of the persons on the Bruun et al. list) are represented on the current core of 36 states: influential persons in the earlier period were drawn from 11 of the 12 current "Western Europe and Other" core countries, from 5 of the 9 current Asian core countries, from 3 each of the Latin American and Eastern European core countries, and from 1 of the African countries (Egypt).

            Despite these continuities, the sheer size of the Commission makes the system less of a "gentlemen's club" than in the era described by Bruun and his colleagues.  In addition, the greater ease of travel and the increased political profile of drug issues has meant an increase in attendance at Commission sessions, and a shift towards diplomatic rather than expert leadership of delegations.  Altogether, the delegations of the 50 member states in attendance at the 1997 Commission session totalled 433 members.  In addition, the 1997 Commission session was attended by "observers of 58 other States and by representatives of 5 specialized agencies, 11 intergovernmental organizations and 26 non-governmental organizations in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council" of the UN. [3:69].


The scope of the system

            The system is still not quite global.  Thus considerable energy is devoted to pushing or persuading countries to accede to the three conventions (and to the 1972 amendment of the 1961 Convention).  This effort has met with considerable, though not complete, success.  According to the 1996 INCB Report [8], 158 states had ratified or acceded to the 1961 Single Convention by November 1996.  Those not acceding include 10 states in Africa, 5 in the Americas, 5 in Asia, 3 in Europe, 6 in Oceania, and 4 states which were formerly part of the Soviet Union.  A total of 146 states have ratified or acceded to the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and 137 (72% of all the states in the world) to the 1988 Convention.  In the 10-year period 1987-1996, the number of signatories of the 1961 Convention had risen by 39%, and of the 1971 Convention by 72%.

            The effort to push holdouts into ratifying the Conventions has thus met with considerable success.  However, the system recognizes that this in itself can be a hollow victory.  While greeting with "widespread satisfaction" the increase in accessions in 1996, the Commission noted that "the increasing number of ratifications of, and accessions to, these treaties was in itself not enough, and the wider implementation of the treaties was urgently needed". [3:55]  

            Until the early 1970s, the international control system was primarily concerned with three agricultural products and their derivatives: opium poppies, coca leaves, and cannabis.  While the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 superseded a series of earlier treaties, dating back to 1912, it did not make substantial changes in their provisions.  Industrial societies with substantial pharmaceutical industries had successfully resisted attempts to extend the international control system beyond the scope of opium, coca and cannabis derivatives.  The scales were tipped by the growth of recreational and other nonmedical use of pharmaceutical drugs in industrial countries.  In particular, the US became a proponent of a new treaty as part of the official US reaction to the use of drugs by the 1960s counterculture. [9]   When Kettil Bruun and his colleagues [1] studied the system, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances had been adopted but had not yet gone into effect.  As eventually implemented, this treaty covers a wide range of psychoactive substances, including drugs which in many developed societies account for one-quarter or one-third of all prescriptions for medication.  The 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances further extended the range of the system, including provisions for controlling precursor chemicals, for confiscation of property connected with drug trading, and for extradition and mutual legal assistance, including as needed abrogation of bank secrecy rules.

            Presently, the system exercises control over "more than 116 narcotic drugs" under the 1961 Convention, 105 psychotropic substances under the 1971 Convention, and 22 chemical precursors under the 1988 Convention. [6]

            From the perspective of harm to public health, what is notable about the international conventions is what is omitted: tobacco and alcohol, which each account for more of the global burden of disease and disability than all of the controlled drugs together. [10] In the WHO’s current estimates of the contributions of different risk factors to the global burden of disease, 3.5% of lost disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) are attributed to alcohol, 2.6% to tobacco, and 0.6% to all drugs under international control.[11]

            As Bruun et al. [1] describe, there were international agreements about alcohol trade among colonial powers in the first part of the century; and Tyrrell [12] has described the international leadership role the U.S. temperance forces played in this era.  All such efforts came to a halt, however, by the 1930s.  The contrast between the special status of controlled psychoactive substances and the treatment of alcohol as an ordinary commodity [13] has if anything sharpened since the time of Bruun et al.'s analysis.  At the end of 1998, there is perhaps the equivalent of one full-time staff person working in the entire international agency system on alcohol problems (primarily in WHO), and no staffers with alcohol as their primary responsibility. On the other hand, tobacco is receiving increased attention from the World Health Organization, as a major initiative under the new WHO Director-General, Gro Brundtland.

            There are some glimmerings of recognition by those in the drug control system of the incongruities involved. In his address at the opening of the 1994 Commission meetings, UNDCP's then-Director-General, Giacomelli, noted that it was

increasingly difficult to justify the continued distinction among substances solely according to their legal status and social acceptability.  Insofar as nicotine-addiction, alcoholism, and the abuse of solvents and inhalants may represent greater threats to health than the abuse of some substances presently under international control, pragmatism would lead to the conclusion that pursuing disparate strategies to minimize their impact is ultimately artificial, irrational and uneconomical. [14]

At the same meeting, the statement by the then-Director of the WHO Programme on Substance Abuse pushed the analysis farther:

Current drug strategies are, to some extent, driven by a few industrialized countries.  On the one hand, they are making strenuous efforts to exclude from their shores every conceivable kind of illegal substance.  But on the other hand, these countries are also vigorously pushing their own substances, such as alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals onto the very same countries from which they are doing their best to exclude illegal drugs. [15]

Indeed, the Executive Board of the World Health Organization has requested its Director-General to "initiate the development of a framework convention" which will among other matters "deal with aspects of tobacco control that transcend national boundaries" (EB97.R8, WHO Executive Board 23 January 1996).


Drug control, the free market and the effective state

            The 1990s have seen the triumph of free market ideology and of the doctrine of consumer sovereignty.   In the view of orthodox economists in North America, few impediments indeed are legitimate in the path of the consumer who has the resources to purchase a commodity.  Grudgingly, this tradition will acknowledge "market imperfections" to the extent use of a commodity has adverse effects on others, but from this perspective any harm a consumer may do to him/herself is already accounted for in the price s/he chooses to pay (see, for example, [16]).

            On an international level, there has been a trend for trade agreements and free-market treaties to subordinate public-health considerations to economic considerations and free-trade principles.  For instance, the U.S. and Canadian national governments have both used trade rules to attack alcohol controls in the other's provinces and states [13], and the U.S. has used trade rulings to force open Asian tobacco markets and introduce new levels of promotion into them. [17]

            In the world of the drug conventions, all this is turned upside down.  The eager consumer is to be saved from him/herself, by whatever means necessary.   The rules of the conventions override any trade agreements.  The world of licit narcotics is a managed economy on a global scale, with a committee (the INCB) in charge of managing it.

            Another aspect of the dominant ideology of the 1990s is a new orthodoxy about the role of the state.  The World Bank's World Development Report for 1997 is entitled The State in a Changing World [18], and is devoted to setting forth lessons about increasing the "effectiveness of the state".  The report notes (p. 3) that "many states try to do too much with few resources and little capability, and often do more harm than good".  Elsewhere, it is noted that “incentives for corrupt behaviour” by officials can be reduced by "policies that lower controls on foreign trade....  If the state has no authority to restrict exports or to license businesses, there will be no opportunities to pay bribes in these areas" (p. 105).

            Almost the only mention of drugs in the main text of this report is in terms of the need "to address the growing problems of crime and violence" in Latin America, "which is partly related to drug trafficking in the region" (p. 166).  But a box devoted specifically to how the homicide rate was reduced in Cali, Colombia, identified as "one of the centers of the illegal world trade in cocaine", enumerated four successful strategies, none of them specifically directed at the drug traffic (one of them included restricting "sales of alcohol ... late at night and during holidays") (p. 44).

            Again, the world of the drug conventions is at odds with this dominant orthodoxy.  Under the conventions, trade controls are being increased on a wider variety of commodities, including “chemical precursors” with broad non-drug uses.  As the World Bank report would predict, opportunities for corruption are accordingly multiplying.  In the armamentarium of the modern state and of the international system, drug controls are the most intrusive instrument of limitation on autonomy, sovereignty, free markets and travel.  In the wake of the 1988 Convention, the system of international controls is extended to cover international licensing and oversight of the transactions of a wide variety of industries: not only the pharmaceutical industry, but also the chemical industry (precursors), the banking industry (money laundering), postal and courier services, and the shipping, air and road transport industries.  As the Moroccan delegate put it during the general debate in the 1995 meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, countries are caught in

contradictory positions resulting from international commitments....  We have a commitment to follow the recommendations of international funding organizations for a liberalization of trade.  This runs counter to strengthening control of ships and containers.  The contradictions in such obligations raise public and legal problems. (quoted in [19])


The role of the U.S.

            By all accounts, the U.S. has long played a dominant role in the international control system.  Writing in 1972, Bruun and his colleagues summarized their findings: "more is invested in the system by way of effort, people, and ... money by the United States than by any other nation in the world community."  "Interestingly enough", they note, "this role was assumed before the U.S. gained ‘superpower’ status after World War II".[1:131, 132]  "Among developed countries," Friman [20] notes in his historical study of US drug diplomacy, "the United States has adopted the strictest national control measures against illicit drugs and has played the most active role in international enforcement....  Since the early 1900s, the United States has also used various pressure tactics to win international allies and convert adversaries in the war against drugs".

            Bruun et al. [1:148] list 18 "features of the international drug control system attributable to U.S. influence".  The influence has if anything grown in the ensuing quarter-century.  As Stares [21:16] remarks concerning this period, "largely at the urging of the United States, the global prohibition regime was subsequently strengthened and broadened".

            The US efforts internationally to a considerable extent reflected domestic politics.  A feature of recent domestic US political history has been the waging of two "wars on drugs": the first by Nixon starting in the late 1960s, and the second by Reagan starting in 1984, and continuing to some extent under Bush.  To a considerable extent, the 1971 Convention, the 1972 Protocol amending the 1961 Convention, and the 1988 Convention may all be seen as outgrowths of the two American "wars" (see [20:74-76] on the 1988 Convention).

            In the meetings of the Commission, there is formal equality among Commission members, and the U.S. interventions are by no means the most rhetorically inflated.  Nevertheless, the U.S. delegation's behaviour often assumes a status of being "first among equals".  The opening of the first 1994 Commission session was delayed when the US refused to accept the Asian region's selection of Iran as chair of the Commission sessions; eventually a chair acceptable to the US, from South Korea, was named.  The US speech in the Commission's opening "general debate" tends to be authoritative and prescriptive in tone -- a tour of the horizon of the world situation, replete with such admonitions as that only countries which have ratified all Conventions should be reelected to the Commission.

            While the U.S. has spent much energy and influence within the international control system, it has also acted in a sustained and energetic manner outside the system, both through bilateral agreements and actions, and through unilateral action.  One aspect of this has been the gradual building up of a substantial establishment of drug enforcement agents placed around the globe.  The old Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs already had 5 men stationed in Europe by 1959.  By 1965 this had grown to 14 agents in Europe [1:143], and by 1969 there were 26 agents and 8 other staff in a total of 12 offices outside the US.[22:482] Growth continued exponentially to reach a high point of 417 staff overseas in 1976, declined for a while after that, and grew again to 416 in a total of 73 offices in 50 countries in 1993.[22:482] The DEA foreign establishment, which by no means exhausts US government staff posted overseas on drug matters, is thus twice the total staff complement of the UNDCP.

            In concert with this effort, the US has pursued an active program of negotiating mutual legal assistance and extradition treaties (see [22]).  Where other means have failed, the U.S. has not hesitated to act unilaterally, as in the 1989 seizure of the President of Panama, General Noriega, for arraignment on drug charges in the U.S. [22:455]

            Backing up these efforts has been an increasingly prominent "certification" process, whereby the US President is required to certify to Congress each year the extent of cooperation by each country in the war on drugs.  Nations designated as "uncooperative" automatically become ineligible for US aid and trade credit guarantees, and face US opposition to multilateral lending through such institutions as the World Bank.  This process is not popular outside the US; as the Mexican ambassador to Britain put it,

So where does the United States get the moral authority to unilaterally pass judgement on the rest of the world?  Who certifies that the United States is doing its part to cooperate not against drug production or trafficking, but by reducing its own domestic demand, which  fuels much of the world's drug trade?....  The United States is fuelling nationalist sentiment in Latin America, where many continue to ask why they must fight in this most American of battles. [23]

"Many governments understandably resent the process", the US State Department acknowledges, adding that nevertheless "most governments try to ensure that they receive full certification the following year". [24]

            Underlying the strong and multifaceted US efforts against the illicit drug market are both objective conditions and ideological considerations.  Objectively, drug issues matter more to the U.S. than, say, to New Zealand; the U.S. has long been the largest market in the world for illicit drugs.  Drugs have periodically occupied the top of the U.S. political agenda; fighting against drugs has been a proven path to political success.

            At the international level, it can be argued that the global war on drugs plays an ideological role in organizing U.S. foreign policies and actions.  In the last years of the Soviet Union, drugs came to the top of the international agenda in part because they offered a terrain where there was less contention than elsewhere between the two superpowers.  With the collapse of communism as an ideological opponent, the main ideological organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy disappeared.  To some extent, the war on drugs has filled the gap; indeed, the UNDCP itself notes in a report that it "seemed almost to take [the] place" of the cold war in the early 1990s.[25:184]  For U.S. foreign policy the war on drugs provides, for instance, a rationale for activist and interventionist policies in Latin America that previously would have been justified by anticommunism.

            Among the conclusions of Bruun et al. [1:274] over 20 years ago was the comment that "the international control system has failed to become truly international".  They added, pointedly, that "the extent to which the drug control system is dominated by U.S. interests ... makes it a travesty of internationalism".  Despite all the intervening changes, it is doubtful that they would change their conclusion today.


Assessments of the system’s effectiveness and effects

            In terms of its primary aim of suppressing the illicit traffic in drugs, in most accountings the international drug control system is pronounced to be a failure.  The UNDCP’s own banner publication, the World Drug Report of 1997, notes that the ultimately supply reduction strategies “must be judged by how they affect consumer demand, through the decreased availability of drugs”, and that “in this domain the outcome is undoubtedly less than satisfactory”.[25]  In the same vein, the Commission's Report on the 1997 sessions noted that "despite the rising trend in seizure of drugs, the worldwide drug problem had shown no significant decline during the past year".[3:48).    Other voices within the system are in consensus; “year after year, the situation is worse”, as the delegation from Greece put it in the CND general debate in 1994.[19]  Summing up the situation in the 1995 general debate, the Interpol representative noted that

I am reminded of the film title, Same Time, Next Year -- as the years go by, there is no real improvement in the situation.  There are serious problems in nearly every region....  Next year we hope for serious progress, but we can't report it today.[19]

Policy analyses more at arms-length concur with these conclusions:

The production of heroin, cocaine, cannabis, and synthetic drugs is at a record high and will continue to rise; narcotics traffickers are moving drugs and money throughout the international economy with virtual impunity; and drug consumption is exploding in many countries that had hitherto escaped the drug scourge.[26]

            In a longer perspective, Stares [21:15-46] has recently provided a concise account of the rise of global illicit drug market, despite the best efforts of the control system.  Some analysts would argue that it is, indeed, because of the control system that the illicit market has grown.  In the general debate at the1995 Commission meetings, the chief Netherlands delegate pointed to the "giant criminogenic multiplier effects", as he called them, of the drug control system.  The drug trade, he noted,

is about 10% of total international trade; greater than the oil trade, and double the receipts of the pharmaceutical companies.  It has formidable economic power. [The meeting's documents show] a 285% increase 1985-1993 in opium, a 185% increase in cocaine.  I wish I were conducting such a business!...  By the laws of economics, prices and profits are high if competition is stifled.  Paradoxically, law enforcement contributes to restricting trade.  Profits provide reserves to absorb losses and pay for corruption.  The combined push and pull factors generate enormous power. (quoted in [19])

            As Tullis [27] has found in a study in nine drug-producing societies, drug policies also produce unintended and often adverse consequences.  Summarizing a detailed study of effects in Colombia and Bolivia, he concludes:

although drug-control laws have contributed little to suppressing the illicit-drug trade, they have contributed much to social dislocations, corruption, militarization, abuse of human rights, and a general disregard for human decency.... However much U.S. politicians of moment may call for death, destruction, and mayhem to drug suppliers, Colombia and Bolivia -- and many countries like them -- cannot be faulted for resisting. [27:171, 182]

            As we discuss below, these assessments of the system do not paint the whole picture, mainly because they focus on the prohibitory aspects of the system and ignore its effects in the arena of control and regulation of prescription and other pharmaceuticals.


Circling the wagons

            To a large extent, then, the failure of the system to accomplish its primary aim is acknowledged by all the organs of the international control system.  The next breath, however, brings a call to redouble the same repertoire of efforts.  Among a strong majority of participants in the Commission meetings, there appears still to be a consensus to pursue the same paths even more strenuously than in the past.  But even the strongest statements of commitment to these paths do not express much faith in succeeding.  The tone is well conveyed by the Norwegian contribution to the Commission's 1995 general debates: “the global situation looks grim, and calls for concerted action rather than resignation”.[19]  In the common rhetoric of Commission participants, drug control efforts remain a "war" or a "battle" against a "scourge" or "menace". As the Saudi Arabian delegate put it in 1995, "we regard drug traffickers as evil on earth, enemies of humankind".  In this frame, any call for flexibility tends to be seen as unacceptable and indeed traitorous.[19]

            Recent efforts to defend the system point in several rather incompatible directions.  In the context of preparing for a June 1998 Special Session of the UN General Assembly to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1988 Convention, the 1998 CND meeting adopted a "draft political declaration" which ties goals for progress (though unquantified) to specific dates.  By 2003, there is to be national legislation and programs implementing an action plan on amphetamines; national money-laundering legislation in accordance with the 1988 Convention; new international cooperation among judicial and law enforcement authorities; and new or enhanced demand reduction strategies.  By 2008, there are to be "significant and measurable results in the field of demand reduction", and supply reduction strategies should "eliminate or significantly reduce the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy".[28]  The new UNDCP Executive Director, Pino Arlacchi,

stressed ... that the Special Session should be a turning point for the world to go forward with renewed energy on drug control.  There are many reasons for optimism in this regard, he said: a politically more cooperative international climate -- devoid of the East-West and North-South ideological divides; sophisticated technology such as satellite monitoring systems; and the accumulated knowledge of the international community in drug control activities. [29]

            Less optimistically, the INCB's report for 1997 concluded that "preventing the abuse of drugs is becoming an increasingly difficult endeavour, at least partly because of the rapid and growing spread of messages in the environment that promote drug abuse.  Many of them can be regarded as public incitement and inducement to use and abuse drugs".  Noting that the 1988 Convention requires governments to criminalize "publicly inciting or inducing others" to use illicit drugs illicitly, the INCB called for governments if necessary to find practical ways around guarantees of freedom of expression in adopting such laws.  "Prominent people have issued some very public calls to take drugs and have not been prosecuted", the INCB noted; "this flagrant refusal by Governments to implement an international convention to which they are signatories is almost hypocritical" [30, paragraphs 2, 8, 10, 27).

            A third path of defense has been an effort to "de-sensationalize the drugs issue".[25:3]  "UNDCP believes that the drugs issue is best discussed on the basis of objective, factual and scientific analysis", a press statement puts it; "our World Drug Report has been widely praised for doing just that".[31]   The 1997 World Drug Report is indeed the flagship of this effort to steer away from dramatization, with relatively sober assessments of the difficulties involved in education, treatment, crop substitution and other countermeasures, and with a fairly full consideration of all sides in the "regulation-legalization debate".  The Report concludes with a fairly pessimistic and defensive justification of the control system:

Realistically, we have to accept that human beings are imperfect, and therefore that drug problems and drug abuse which have been with us for centuries, albeit in milder form, are likely to remain for the foreseeable future, as are the conditions that contribute to them -- boredom, insecurity, ignorance, unhappiness and poverty.  But what we can do is try to prevent the exploitation of these vulnerable conditions by criminal greed. In the words of the eighteenth century writer, Edmund Burke, "all that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing".  In the end, perhaps this is what drug supply reduction is all about. [25:237-238]



            The international drug control system is the most ambitious and complex attempt in history to control the flow and use of widely-used commodities, and to manage the markets for them on a global basis.  The sheer ambition of the system is impressive.  Impressive also is the extent to which the system has been able to function in the teeth of dominant global doctrines of the 1990s, the doctrines of consumer sovereignty and of the freedom of markets and trade.

            In some areas, the system has shown some successes.  For instance, in most places doctors have successfully been persuaded or pressured to stop prescribing barbiturates.  As Bruun et al. [1:276] note, the successes tend to be where "it has been the conduct of professions and of private enterprise which has been influenced"; the system has had little success where its efforts are "directly aimed at affecting the individual drug-taker at the behavioural level".  Put in other terms, the successes of the system are in the control of legal markets in psychoactive medications, and exemplify that "control systems operate most effectively through a license system which restricts sales, provision, or authorization of sales to particular professions or licensees".[32]  While the prohibitory side of the regime creates a space for market forces to work against the regime, the market-control side of the regime legitimates and harnesses a set of vested interests in a joint enterprise.

            But in terms of achieving its major aims, the system is seen as a failure, not only by outside observers but by those inside the system.  Among those committed to the system and to its approaches, this becomes an argument not for change but for redoubling the same kind of efforts.  The very lack of success breeds a rigidity in the stance of the system's defenders.  As a Dutch member of the European Parliament put it,

we have been increasingly tempted to build structures which, once they are in place, make flexible thinking impossible.  I mention for instance the Conventions of the United Nations....  We have to beware a sort of fundamentalism which tends to confer a degree of sanctity to the approach laid down in the Conventions. [33]

            Why has the system flourished in the face of failure?  Part of the answer may lie in the title of a book about national drug policies, "suitable enemies".[34]  In the book, Christie and Bruun point out the suitability of illicit drugs as an enemy for the modern state.  Wars have been a traditional means of rallying consensus and solidarity among a nation's citizenry.  But real wars have many casualties, and involve much expenditure of state resources.  The rhetorical war on drugs becomes a substitute mechanism for rallying consensus and solidarity.  Particularly in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the international drug control system, and the international war on drugs which it prosecutes, may be seen in the same light. Drugs are a suitable enemy not only for the modern state but for the new world order.




Revised from a paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, Toronto, Canada, 10 August 1997. Views expressed are those of the authors, and not necessarily of agencies with which they are affiliated.



[1]  Bruun K, Pan L, Rexed I.  The Gentlemen's Club: International Control of Drugs and Alcohol. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

[2]  Pan L, Bruun K.  Recent developments in international drug control. British Journal of Addiction 1979;74:141-160.

[3]  Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Report on the Fortieth Session (18-25 March 1997), UN Economic and Social Council Official Records, 1997, Supplement No. 8, E/1997/28, E/CN.7/1997/12. [Vienna: CND,] 16 April, 1997.

[4]  [Giacomelli G].  Activities of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme: Report of the Executive Director. E/CN.7/1996/2.  [Vienna: UNDCP,] 11 March, 1996.

[5]  Annan K.  Annual Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organization, document A/52/1.  New York: United Nations, 3 September, 1997.  Electronic version at www.un.org/Docs/SG/Report97.

[6]  UNDCP  Role and Functions of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP). Vienna: UNDCP, 1996.

[7]  United Nations Handbook, 1996.  34th edition. Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1996.

[8]  International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).  Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 1996. Vienna: INCB, 1997.  Electronic version at www.undcp.org/reports/incb96/e.

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Egypt               44*

Bulgaria           16*

China               36*

Argentina         21

Australia                      25*

Ghana             16*

Hungary           37

India                 52*

Brazil               20*

Belgium                       20*

Madagascar    21

Poland             25*

Indonesia         20*

Colombia         16*

Canada                       50*

Morocco          27*

Russia             52*

Iran                  47*

Mexico             52*

France                         54*

Nigeria             22*

Yugoslavia       50

Japan              36*

Peru                42

Germany                     37*



Malaysia          18*


Italy                              24*



Pakistan          31*


Netherlands                 27*



South Korea    18*


Sweden                       19*



Thailand          27*


Switzerland                 23**





Turkey                         48**





United Kingdom          52*





United States              54*



NOTE:   The table lists countries which have been (or will have been) members for 16 years or longer since 1946 (years to end of  term in 1997 or 1999, if on Commission in 1997).  Number listed for each region is number of states from the region which have at some time been on the Commission.


     *        on Commission in 1997; number of years listed is to end of that term, in 1997 or 1999.

     **       returned to Commission in 1998; years to 1997 counted.