Substance Use and Misuse 34:1689-1707, 2999.




Robin Room


National Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research

Oslo, Norway



            The Commission on Narcotics Drugs, a UN political organ, meets every year in Vienna.  Country statements from the Commission's general debate in 1994 and 1995 are analyzed in terms of their rhetorical framing.  The dominant frame is of drugs as a scourge or menace, against which a war must be waged.  There is consensus that the war is being lost.  International cooperation and solidarity are proposed as what will turn the tide; in the context of a losing battle, calls for decriminalization are seen as an unacceptable surrender.  Fairly uniformly, this rhetorical framing is put forward by a majority of countries, and no clear alternative framing is presented.  Historical resonances of the framing, and possible future developments, are considered.




La Commission des stupéfiants, un organe politique des Nations Unies, se réunit chaque année à Vienne (A).  Les déclarations des pays faites dans le cadre du débat général de la Commission en 1994 et 1995 sont analysées du point de vue de leur cadre rhétorique. Dans ce dernier, les drogues sont décrites comme un fléau ou une menace qu'il faut combattre. Il y a consensus sur le fait que la guerre est en train d'être perdue. La coopération internationale et la solidarité pourraient renverser le courant; dans le contexte d'une bataille perdue, les appels à la décriminalisation sont perçus comme une capitulation inacceptable. Ce cadre rhétorique est, de manière assez uniforme, celui de la majorité des pays et aucun cadre alternatif clair n'est présenté.  Les résonances historiques et les développements futurs possibles sont examinés.




La Comisión de los Narcoticos, órgano politico de las Naciones Unidas, se reune cada año en Viena. Las declaraciones de los países, hechas en el cuadro del debate general de la Comisión en 1994 y 1995 son analyzadas desde el punto de vista de su cuadro retórico. El cuadro dominante es que las drogas son un azote o una amenaza y que se deben combatir. Hay concenso de que esta guerra está perdida. La cooperación international y la solidaridad estan presentadas como lo que puede invertir esta tendencia; en el contexto de una batalla perdida, los llamamientos por una descriminalización son percibidos como una capitulación inaceptable. De una manera bastante uniforme, este es el cuadro retórico de una mayoría de los países. Ningun cuadro alternativo claro

fué presentado. Las resonancias historicas del cuadro y desarollos futuros posibles han sido examinados.





            Every year, several hundred people gather in Vienna for ten days for the annual sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).  The Commission is the political organ of international drug control, reporting to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.  It is the originator of and oversight body for the implementation of the three main international drug conventions, of 1961 (consolidating earlier conventions), of 1971, and of 1988.  It oversees the work of the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), headquartered in Vienna, and receives the reports of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a more technical body with the main task of regulating legal supplies of controlled drugs.

            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 (Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 1997).  The 1988 Convention broadened the system’s responsibilities beyond production and trade in psychoactive drugs per se to include also products of chemical industries (drug precursors) and banking systems (money laundering).  However, as noted by Bruun et al. (1975) in their classic study of the international drug control system, it has no jurisdiction over the drugs which are responsible for the greatest aggregate harm to health -- alcohol and tobacco.   

            For the biennium 1996/97, the Commission oversaw a regular budget of USD $70 million, and a project budget of a further $109 million (Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 1997).  While this supports a substantial UNDCP staff establishment of about 200, it may be noted that in 1993 the United States Government had over 400 staff of the Drug Enforcement Administration, plus drug specialists in other US agencies, posted overseas (Nadelmann, 1993:482).



            The Commission was formed in 1946, replacing prewar organs, with a membership of 15 states.  Over the years, its membership has grown, and since 1991 consists of  53 countries elected from U.N. members.  Representatives of at least as many other countries also attend and speak at  the Commission meetings, as do representatives of a variety of international intergovernmental organizations and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  The conference hall seating is a large semi-circle, with Commission members seated in the front rows, other nations behind, and international agencies and NGOs toward the back.  Since many delegations have as many as six or seven members, even with extra seating at the back of the hall there is not room to seat all participants, and there are standing crowds at the back for such occasions as the opening session.  The sessions are simultaneously translated between the main UN working languages.

            From the point of view of the movers and shakers at the meeting, the main work of the meeting is conducted in "corridor conversations".  Fresh initiatives of the Commission -- resolutions and other actions -- are considered in committees before coming to the full Commission sessions.  No formal action is taken, therefore, in the first few days of full Commission sessions.  Instead, the main activity for about the first three days of plenary sessions is the "general debate".  In this agenda item, each participating delegation is allowed a ten minutes presentation.  The ten minutes rule is policed gently, mainly by periodic reminders from the chair between speakers, and particularly after a speaker has gone considerably overtime.  "Debate" is actually a misnomer, since there is no exchange between speakers, except for rare comments by a presenter on a previous presentation.

            Participants in the general debate clearly have ambivalent feelings about the general debate, as expressed in the 1995 statement from the Philippines:

The Philippines has questions about the usefulness of the general debate, though it is useful because it offers opportunities for countries to present their policies and their commitment to the international crusade against drugs. (Philippines, 1995)

It is a guaranteed "airtime" for each participating delegation, whether the delegation is important or otherwise.  A summary of each statement is published in the twice-daily press releases on the Commission.  And a delegation may use the statement to send a practical or symbolic signal to others in the system, with potential future implications.

            On the other hand, no verbatim record of the proceedings is published.  Regulars at the meetings often do not bother to disguise their disdain for the whole general debate.

I congratulate the chair [of the meeting] on his election, but note he may be bored by the third day of listening.  (Russia, 1995)

The audience in the general debate is indeed often restless or listless.  For instance, many of the delegates were moving around and holding private conversations during the US delegation's presentation on the second day of the 1995 sessions; the chair eventually called for order.  But, on the other hand, the corridor gossip was that the U.S. delegation were relatively late in the order of speakers because they had neglected to put the US on the initial speaker's list.  This was seen as a minor diplomatic stumble for the most important country in the Commission's world.



            If we step back from the immediate process of the Commission, however, the general debate does offer a valuable window into the patterns of thinking of the international drug control arena.  This paper explores one aspect of that thinking: the way in which drug problems and the international control structure are conceptually framed.

            In crafting a statement for the general debate, national delegations usually include some details about events and actions in their country in the preceding year.  Countries aspiring to leadership, and particularly the U.S., may take a more global orientation in their review, including their views on the direction of UNDCP's efforts.

            Some national presentations, particularly from Europe, leave it at that.  But the substance of most presentations is surrounded with a rhetorical frame, a frame which characterizes the nature of the drug problem and the official national attitude to it.  While the substantive content of the statement is often matter-of-fact, the framing is usually emotive.  It may be quite lengthy, or it may be extremely brief; for instance, the matter-of-fact content of Italy's 1995 statement was preceded by just one sentence:

We are fighting against one of the most severe scourges affecting mankind.  (Italy 1995)

This paper focuses on these framing statements from the national statements in the Commission's general debates of 1994 and 1995.  We draw on this material for an analysis of the rhetoric of international drug control; that is, the way in which those staffing the system characterize the objects and objectives of the system, and the structure of arguments with which the system is supported.



            Altogether, 57 countries made contributions to the CND general debate in 1994, and 60 in 1995.  Contributions were also made by a number of intergovernmental organizations and NGOs; while we will draw on these, our primary focus is on the national statements.  Notes on the statements were made as they were presented, for 54 of the country statements in 1994 and 59 in 1995.  In a few cases, the notes are only on part of the statement.  Drawing on the English simultaneous translation for statements not in English, notes as close to verbatim as possible were taken as the statement was made.  However, the reconstructed sentences given here as quotations may be a somewhat summary form of what was actually said.



            A variety of different terms were used in the statements to characterize the nature of the drug problem, besides, of course, "the drug problem", "drug trafficking" or "drug abuse".  A few statements used a variety of colourful characterizations:

India will cooperate against the menace of drug trafficking and its abuse....  The smuggling of narcotics and its latterday manifestation, narcoterrorism, have become the bane of the world.... [We must take action] before the drug monster annihilates the entire humanity some day.  (India, 1995)

But the overwhelming favourite among terms characterizing the problem was "scourge".  We recorded 21 uses of this characterization in the 1994 and 1995 general debates; "menace" was the runner-up, used 7 times.

            The choice of term is interesting.  The literal sense of a scourge is a whip or a lash used to inflict pain or punishment.  But the term has long been used in English primarily figuratively. The Oxford English Dictionary records two main senses, each with a long history.  One is "a thing or person that is an instrument of divine chastisement".  In this sense, medieval Europeans called Attila the Hun "the scourge of God", and Chaucer wrote of "the sharp scourges of adversity".  The other sense is "a cause of (usually, widespread) calamity.  Applied, e.g., to a cruel tyrant, a warrior, a war, a disease that destroys many lives".  Webster's Third New International Dictionary gives five figurative senses:

            one that is an instrument of punishment or severe affliction;

            a cause of widespread or great affliction;

            a wasting disease that affects a wide area [e.g., smallpox];

            a large destructive swarm [e.g. of grasshoppers];

            a social evil [e.g., recurrent unemployment].

"Scourge" is thus ambiguous about the exact nature of what is causing the trouble.  It can be used concerning disease, for a social problem, or for a natural (or divinely-inspired) disaster.  But it does not necessarily invoke any of these categories.  And it can be used both of an impersonal force and of volitional acts by humans.

            What is perhaps surprising is the relative lack of disease imagery in the statements' characterizations of "the drug problem".  In recent decades, three main disease images have been used concerning drug use.  One is the image of a contagious epidemic.  Contagion and epidemic images have long been a staple image in the U.S. of the spread of drug use through a community (Room, 1973), and social policies have on occasion been built around taking the image literally.  While this imagery might be seen as applicable in the context of international drug control, it was very little used in the general debate statements.

            The second image is of cancer.  In the context of drugs, this image is figurative, and usually involves talking of a society or other human group as if it were an organic body.  The current director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (usually known as the U.S. "drug czar"), a retired general, has rejected the common U.S. imagery of a "war on drugs" in favour of cancer as an image:

War, he said, was focused violence directed toward an achievable end, with a unity of command and element of surprise.  "None of those associated military concepts are useful to us talking and thinking about this concept, but cancer probably is," he said.  He talked of dealing with the root causes of drug abuse, treating the pain and preserving the dignity of those afflicted. (Wren, 1996)

No references to drugs as a cancer were heard in the country statements.  Instead, there were a few references to the drug problem as a destroying "monster":

The drug problem is a monster ensnaring the whole planet in its tentacles. (Belarus, 1994)

            The third disease image is the imagery of addiction and dependence, of an uncontrollable craving taking over one's life.  This imagery tends to be applied at the level of the individual rather than to social aggregates, and this may partially explain its absence in discussing a system for controlling substances which are subject to control, after all because of their "dependence potential".  It is nevertheless remarkable that almost none of the framing rhetoric in the general debate mentioned dependence or even addiction in characterizing the drug problem.

            Instead, the characterizations of the nature of the problem tended to the moral and ethical.

The ethical principles of our youth are threatened by [the drug problem with] disintegration and collapse. (Morocco, 1995)

We should not forget that drug abuse is an external sign of moral weakness. (Poland, 1995)

The drug problem ... is built on a base of destroying human freedom -- [users'] values and sense of responsibility.  Drugs are scourges which threaten the very basis of our living together.... [Liberalization] can only result in slavery. (Uruguay, 1995)

No region is unaffected by this world scourge, which operates by preying on misery and crime. (Algeria, 1994)

It begins by undermining the family, and ends by undermining the government. (Argentina, 1994)

As these quotations illustrate, the drug user is almost absent from the rhetorical framing in the general debate; only occasionally is there a characterization of the user, and then usually in general terms such as "youth":

Drugs target an age-group dear to us all, our youth.  (Saudi Arabia, 1995)

The drug "problem" comes from outside the user, though in the end the user is seen as possessed by it.  But the problem is curiously nonspecific: one could substitute other morally suspect behaviours into the sentences above -- for instance, hypersexuality or too much television watching -- and have them still make sense.

            By and large, the problem is also not personified. Mostly the discussion is in terms of "drug trafficking" or of the "drug trade".  In a few speeches, personification proceeds as far as "drug traffickers", or "narcoterrorists", but without any further specification:

Drug traffickers have increased their power.  (Morocco, 1994)

The enormous power of drug traffickers is ever more evident (Mexico, 1995)

Drugs are a creation of the mind.  We must pool our wisdom to get the human mind to say "no" to drugs.  Then drug traffickers will quickly meet their end.  (Pakistan, 1994)

We are confronted by a truly global menace perpetrated by powerful syndicates. (Philippines, 1994)

We regard drug traffickers as evil on earth, enemies of humankind; therefore the penalty is death.  (Saudi Arabia, 1995)

There has been a brisk business in heroin and cocaine....  It is not constrained by law, ethics, or human decency....  At all points of the compass, the traffic is corrupting politics and society.  Trends move in the direction of the trafficker....  There has often been a judicial refusal to put and keep traffickers in jail.  It requires recognition from the international community that rich and powerful drug traffickers pose a direct challenge to national sovereignty. (US, 1995)



            Despite the US drug czar's questioning of its applicability, the imagery of the nature of the control effort was overwhelmingly of war, struggle and conflict.  But, as we have noted, the war is against an enemy which remains impersonal and somewhat abstract:

Let me express the total commitment of the government of Ghana to the war on drug abuse and illicit trafficking. (Ghana, 1995)

We must have an alliance of all those against crime in this long and cruel conflict. (Bolivia, 1994)

The anti-drug war [is a] sacred duty of protecting human beings.... As the anti-drug struggle grows, there will be armed violence to resist. (China, 1995)

Drug control is a daily struggle, we are fighting the scourge on a daily basis. (France, 1995)

We are giving a higher priority to the fight against this evil. (Denmark, 1994)

It is the will of nations to stand together in this fight.  We will fight the menace of drugs with full force. (Pakistan, 1994)

We use warlike language, but the "war on drugs" is about to be lost, if not already lost according to some.  So we need a resolute, nondefeatist line....  In France there is a relentless fight against drugs.  (France, 1994)

Not all statements used the imagery of war and struggle.  In particular, the primarily substantive statements from many western European countries avoided this rhetoric.  But there was no clear alternative imagery with emotive content.  Either drug control was a war, or it was a technical exercise in international cooperation in market control.  Sustained use of militaristic imagery was the hallmark of those most committed to the dominant international paradigm of drug control.



            Statements about the stakes in the battle are sometimes phrased in terms of a positive idealism:

We will do the utmost with the resources available in this noble cause, working toward the healthy society which is the aim of all nations.  (Cuba, 1995)

Only through pooling our efforts can we save the world for our posterity.  (Argentina, 1995)

More often, however, the stakes in the battle are stated in negative terms, in terms of what can be lost in the battle.  As perhaps might be expected in a meeting of governmental representatives, the most commonly mentioned potential loss is of government authority and stability:

The struggle against drug trafficking threatens institutional stability in many countries.  Many governments' stability is threatened if we don't act with international solidarity.  (Argentina, 1994)

[Drugs are a] threat to the national institutions and economy of Panama. (Panama, 1995)

Drug trafficking is seeking to penetrate the vital organs of the state; this becomes a national emergency.  (Bolivia, 1994)

Our national security and stability are threatened by drugs.  (Ethiopia, 1994)

Despite undeniable efforts by the international community, drug trends are up, confirming this is the ill of the century, threatening the development and stability of states.  (Cuba, 1995)

[I will speak of] the impact of drugs on my country: the enormous profits from them jeopardize the traditional values of a democratic society. (Bulgaria, 1995)



            However participants characterized the nature of the control effort, there was complete consensus that illicit trafficking was gaining ground:

Year after year the situation is worse. (Greece, 1994)

The increase in drug use and trafficking is a constant concern of the Mexican government.... In spite of all our activities, still the problems increase.  (Mexico, 1994)

The drug situation is worsening in almost all regions of the world.  It threatens the life, health and dignity of millions of people, but also the stability of states. (Russia, 1994)

The more resources which are earmarked, the more the problem continues to grow, extending its tentacles.  (Ecuador, 1994)

The situation of illicit drug trafficking is worsening despite the efforts of governments.  (Japan, 1995)

The past year has not been a banner year for international counter-narcotics efforts.... Trends move in the direction of the trafficker.  (US, 1995).

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.  (Interpol, 1995)

The only breaks in this catalogue of setbacks were occasional references to successes in the bureaucratic arena -- in UN resolutions or in new adherents to the drug conventions.  However, this “progress” was not linked to any present gains in the actual battle:

Drug traffickers have increased their power.  But there has been significant progress. (Morocco, 1994)

The 1995 statement from the Netherlands, made by a veteran CND delegate, pushed on beyond the consensus on trends to a remarkable analysis of how the drug control system itself actually produced the trends:

[The drug trade] 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!...  More than 90% of the profit is at the distribution stage.  I can't imagine a licit business with such profits -- there is 20%-30% profit for pharmaceuticals at the retail level.  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....  The whole situation is correctly characterized in terms of "giant criminogenic multiplier effects"....  Implementation of the 1988 Convention will deepen our knowledge.  But it will not turn the tide. (Netherlands, 1995)

Another veteran of CND meetings challenged this formulation in making his country's statement.  But even here the consensus that the control system is losing ground was not challenged:

I was surprised by the Netherlands statement: he so splendidly spoke about the advantages of the drug business that I got the unlikely impression that we are met here not to struggle against drugs but to take pleasure in how it is.  Even if drugs is like a many-headed hydra, where a new head grows when one is cut off, there is no reason to give up.  Heracles won his battle against the hydra -- and the world community today is no weaker than the ancient hero.  (Russia, 1995)



            In the dominant rhetoric, the fact that the battle is being lost only strengthens the main prescription offered for the future: increased international solidarity:

The global situation looks grim, and calls for concerted action rather than resignation.  (Norway, 1995)

The problem is far from new but the geographic scope continues to expand.  The only lasting response is international cooperation.  Opportunities for cooperation are multiplying daily, with the cross-border expansion of the drug traffic. (South Korea, 1995)

We need a global answer to the challenge of worsening international trafficking and increasing demand.  It will work with better cooperation of international organizations.  (Hungary, 1995)

Saudi Arabia makes it a point of honour to attend all meetings to further humankind -- in particular, this meeting, when drugs are expanding as never before.  (Saudi Arabia, 1995)

Only through interregional and international cooperation will drug abuse be eliminated.  Countries are dependent on each other and share a responsibility for creating a drugfree world.  (South Africa, 1995)

International cooperation is a must.  We must fight the evil on a common front. (Turkey, 1994)

Behind the calls for cooperation and solidarity lay several impulses.  One theme was certainly an expression of the ideal of the kinship of all humans, as exemplified by the CND itself:

At this Commission, we can share concepts, exchange experiences and results -- strengthening the brotherhood of nations.  (Argentina, 1995)

For many "have-not" nations, however, the expression of solidarity was also an appeal for material help.  For some, this agenda may be their primary interest in the drug control system.

We are unanimous that the narcotics problem has become an international problem.  It must be tackled through solidarity and mutual support.  Many countries are unable to combat this scourge because of resources.  (Sudan, 1995)

The difficult job depends on the joint solidarity of states.  An equivalent commitment is needed from the consumer countries.  It is urgent to get sufficient resources.  (Ecuador, 1994)

Occasionally, there was an uneasy recognition that increasing international integration might be a cause as well as a solution of the problems:

Our dilemma is to overcome illicit drugs, while fostering international interdependence -- which is one of the major causes behind the expansion of the illicit drug trade.  (South Korea, 1995)

[We are caught in] contradictory positions resulting from international commitments, which impede our control.  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. (Morocco, 1995)

Drug trafficking relies on economic integration, on the free movement of people and goods. (Uruguay, 1995)

Particularly for countries in the Americas, calls for international cooperation were sometimes balanced with an insistence on national autonomy, implicitly aimed at the U.S.:

Despite our efforts, the enormous power of drug traffickers is ever more evident.  Therefore it is essential to strengthen the political will, the strategic creativity, and international cooperation while respecting the autonomy of each state.  (Mexico, 1995)

We propose recreating a true sense of community internationally -- not a unilateral establishment of goals by any one country.  (Bolivia, 1995)

On the other hand, the ideal of international cooperation and solidarity was also brought into play in arguments against legalization or decriminalization:

There is greater permissiveness in legal systems.  The distinction between hard and soft drugs takes us down a dangerous path.  There is a lack of clarity in arriving at international commitments. (Colombia, 1995)

There are negative impacts from the trend to legalize "soft drugs" in certain developed countries.  Any success must be built on concerted action and uniform commitment.  (Morocco, 1995)



            The dominant image of the general debate was thus of a heroic band of national governments under siege and fighting a losing battle against a more powerful enemy.  In this framing of the situation, that anyone in the band might let down their guard -- or, even worse, surrender -- is logically seen as a particular danger.  A good deal of the rhetoric in the general debate was thus taken up with what might be termed perimeter maintenance -- not only with the calls for solidarity noted above, but also with specific warnings.  The particular focus of these statements was against any moves to legalize or even decriminalize controlled drugs.

The Argentine government is against decriminalization -- which we understand to mean that we give up the struggle against the drug abuser.  It would raise the level of problems to what are seen for legal psychoactive drugs.  (Argentina, 1995)

While Turkey spares no effort, the tendency to neglecting or even legalizing in some western countries encourages production and trade.... Turkey is categorically opposed to attempts to legalize drugs, which stem from a false idea of individual freedom.  (Turkey, 1995)

There should be no exceptions on types of drugs [subject to international control] -- we should permit no legalization.  It is necessary to work against developments towards legalization in certain European countries.  (Japan, 1995)

The idea of legalization or decriminalization under the pretext of social freedom rights is against the Conventions.  Iran supports the INCB on this very sensitive issue.  (Iran, 1995)

[Concerning] those calling for legalization -- there is no justification for such a step....  The calls for a policy of despair like legalization come from the recognition that drug policies don't work.  The legislation is not in place everywhere.  (UK, 1994)

The situation is depressing, but not frustrating.  Don't accept defeat, as legalization would.  (Interpol, 1994)

On decriminalization, our government is entirely opposed -- it means throwing in the towel.  (Argentina, 1994)

Our government is strongly against giving up.  We reject proposals for normalization of the nonmedical use of drugs; it would lead to an expansion of demand, and is against public health and wellbeing.  (Norway, 1994)

It will be seen that many of the statements made no differentiation between legalization and decriminalization.  But a few statements were more nuanced; the statement from Interpol, for instance, went on to advocate a form of decriminalization:

We need to apply alternatives to penal sanctions for simple users, especially the young. (Interpol, 1994)

A few statements went on to argue not only against liberalizing policies but also against even any discussion of them:

There is for [the trafficker] the gratifying and misleading sound of debate over legalization.  (US, 1995)

It is unacceptable to raise the issue of legalization of heroin or other narcotics.  It is counter to the tasks of the Conventions.  Talks on this subject are incompatible with the task of demand reduction.  (Russia, 1995)

We have deep concern at the voices raised for liberalizing drug consumption.... The UN from its high position must be clear.  Any doubt, hesitation, or unjustified review of the validity of goals will only undermine our commitment.... Our goals are noble and inflexible.  We cannot be successful if there are discordant voices. We cannot retreat, we must be steadfast in our goals.  (Uruguay, 1995)

In venues other than the general debate, the US went even further in the effort to enforce an orthodoxy on drug control issues, declaring a harm reduction approach to be out of bounds:

The US cannot embrace "harm reduction" as a goal.  It connotes a tacit acceptance of drug abuse, and becomes a de-facto decriminalization.  (in Committee of the Whole, 16 March 1995)



            In an analysis of the conferences from which the 1961 and 1971 drug control Conventions emerged, McAllister (1992) identifies five groups of states, each with somewhat different priorities and interests at stake in the outcome.  The fracture lines at that time were between pharmaceutical manufacturing states, "organic states" (where opium and coca grew), and states which did not have either interest at stake.  Another fracture line was around Communist states' concerns to keep international controls weak and inspections nonexistent.

            Some of these fracture lines are still visible in 1994 and 1995.  In particular, the Andean states expressed some traditional reservations of "organic" states:

[There has long been] coca cultivation for traditional medicine and cultural use, so there is legislation allowing for licit use of the plant.  We acknowledge the INCB concern expressed in a number of documents -- we need scientific research to determine the nutritional and medicinal value [of coca leaves], supplemented by anthropological studies.  (Peru, 1995)

The requirements of the international community forced on us anti-coca cultivation [policies] -- public opinion sees this as a policy imposed from without.  There is a defense of sovereignty and self-determination -- manipulated by powerful organizations of coca growers....  We need a new meeting between the state and civil society, and also a new understanding with the international community.  (Bolivia, 1995)

Our work will be sterile if we follow a double standard -- no deterrent for the rich consumer, and blame the poor farmer for all the social ills.  (Morocco, 1995)

Some vestiges might also be detected of the expressions of interests of pharmaceutical manufacturing states, though these would primarily come out elsewhere than in the general debate.  With the changes in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the fracture line between sovereignty and international controls had shifted position; as we have seen, it was primarily a few Latin American states which wove this into their national statements.

            Overshadowing these old fractures was a new one, expressed in the general debate more implicitly than explicitly -- by the extent to which the country framed its statement in terms of the single dominant rhetoric of an international war on drugs.  As we have seen above, a majority of countries are willing to adopt this rhetorical frame in their contributions to the general debate, at least minimally.  Adherence to the rhetorical frame is in part enforced by the knowledge that not doing so will seriously annoy the United States.  For most countries, drugs are a minor aspect of foreign policy, but for the U.S. increasingly in the last 20 years they have been a transcendent issue, one on which the U.S. has taken on, increasingly literally, the role of the world's policeman (Nadelmann, 1993).  As Tyrrell (1994) has recently reminded us, the special role of the U.S. in this and related arenas extends back at least to the early years of the century (see also Bruun et al., 1975).

            The most notorious dissenter from the dominant rhetoric has been the Netherlands.  In the context of the CND, the role the Netherlands has taken on is roughly that of the small boy in the tale of the emperor's clothes: the role of knowledgeable truth-teller.  It is a role played with some relish.  To some extent, there are technically-based contributors to the discussion, such as Interpol and the World Health Organization, which more diffidently also take this role.  "Producer" countries sometimes also come close to an open dissent: in 1995, Bolivia noted that "it was impossible to continue on the present road", and called for a "world summit in 1997" to "seek out the reasons for the impotence of the present system of control".  But it has been the Netherlands which has attracted the main attention and even, as we have seen, rejoinders in the course of other nation's statements. 

            A number of other nations simply avoid any rhetorical framing in their contribution to the general debate, neither adopting nor directly challenging the dominant framing.  In 1995, for instance, each of the following delegations largely avoided any rhetorical framing of their statement: Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Finland, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Tunisia, New Zealand, Brazil, and the Bahamas.  In a few cases, the statement also included quiet challenges to the dominant rhetoric:

The freedom of citizens can be jeopardized when illegal effects dominate the laws.  HIV infections and secondary pathologies severely affect wide groups of consumers.  We must bring them into networks of social and health support.  Hence the importance of substitution programs.  (Spain, 1995)

The primary causes of drug addiction are the growing social pressures on young people; the victory of individualism highlights the weaknesses of the unsuccessful.  This is a value crisis which affects our society.  We need possible and realistic solutions.  (Portugal, 1995)

We must address the harm caused by all drugs: tobacco and alcohol are the major drugs of concern in Australia.  The harm from illicit drugs is much lower but of concern.  (Australia, 1994)

When some states are questioning the effectiveness of the treaties, and there are suggestions of simplistic solutions like legalization, we need to consider the possibility of alternative measures to punishment, and exchange recommendations at the Commission.  Alternative strategies should continue to be analyzed.  We are not advocating any particular change, but saying, don't dismiss innovative approaches which do not conform to current paradigms.... Don't avoid sensitive issues like harm reduction which the Commission must address.  (Australia, 1995)




            The dominant rhetoric of the CND general debate is expressed in terms of a fight between the forces of good and those of evil, with the forces of evil at least temporarily winning.  Such a Manichean view of the world resonates with common ways of thinking in both Christianity and Islam, and thus goes well with many national cultural frames.

            It was also a good fit with the classic world-view of each side in the Cold War.  For those trained in Communism, it has been an easy switch from demonizing all capitalists to focusing particularly on illicit drug market capitalists.  For anti-Communists, an evil empire with hidden subversive tentacles everywhere is a familiar idea.  It is thus not surprising that, as both sides of the Cold War drew back from confrontation in the 1980s, they discovered that drug policy was an ideal field on which to build consensus.  As Christie and Bruun (1985) put it some time ago, illicit drugs are "suitable enemies" for the modern state: a fearsome and intangible opponent against which to rally solidarity, without the costs or disruption of a real war with real nation-states (see also Tham, 1995).

            The dominant rhetoric of international drug control thus reflects many influences.   Perhaps the closest kinship of the rhetoric is an ironic one: it is reminiscent of the rhetoric of 19th-century international socialism, combining a tone of universalistic humanism with a rhetoric of struggle against a powerful collective enemy.  In classic international socialist rhetoric, the operations of unfettered capitalism and an uncontrolled market were seen as a scourge which immiserated ordinary people, destroying otherwise pleasurable daily social life.  In the context of drug control today, the rhetoric is narrowed to a specific class of capitalists.  Old language about arms merchants and "robber barons" undermining democratic states and the will of the people is recycled in rhetoric about drug barons undermining peace and security.  The appeal for solidarity among all nations against a common menace sometimes carries eerie echoes of the old appeals for international proletarian solidarity against the capitalists.



            The quotations we have given above make clear that even those most committed to the  international drug control system in its present form see it as failing.  But, in the dominant rhetorical frame, this becomes an argument not for changing direction but for redoubling and extending the same kind of efforts.  Talking of the international drug conventions, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament noted that “we have been increasingly tempted to build structures which, once they are in place, make flexible thinking impossible” (van den Brink, 1995).

             Institutions with a  rigid  ideology and a siege mentality do sometimes adapt and change.  As with the Roman Catholic church’s development from Counter-Reformation to aggiornamento, though, the change may be a matter of generations rather than years.  The likelihood and speed of change may depend on the strength and development of the interests which sustain the status quo.   Apart from the interests of those who staff the system, we may identify various forces which support the status quo.   Foremost perhaps is popular opinion nearly everywhere; while public opinion increasingly recognizes that the drug war is unwinnable, there is much resistance to or hesitation about abandoning drug prohibition.    We have noted already Christie and Bruun’s argument that drug threats have been “suitable enemies” for building consensus in the modern world, both within many nations and internationally. On an international plane, this factor became particularly important in the late Cold War era.  In the succeeding  era, the drug threat has become particularly useful as an instrument in U.S. foreign policy.  The threat offers a justification, both to internal and external audiences, of an interventionist foreign policy, particularly in Latin America, which can no longer be justified by the threat of Communism.   The  stridency of the campaign of the US anti-drug establishment against such internal developments as moves to make marijuana medically available may reflect these foreign policy considerations.

            Finally, various industries with products that might come under question on health or social policy grounds -- alcohol, tobacco, armaments, perhaps even pharmaceuticals -- have an interest in international attention remaining focussed on a clearly-demarcated set of prohibited products, while they get on with the business of opening markets for their products. The alcoholic beverage industry, with its products increasingly treated as ordinary commodities in international trade (Ferris et al., 1993), has been particularly vigorous in seeking to counteract formulations in terms of alcohol as a drug (CSAP/ICAP Joint Working Group on Terminology, 1998).   Support of the drug control system from these quarters is probably somewhat ambiguous, however, in recognition that it is setting precedents which might someday be applied to their products.

            As some of the speeches in the CND general debate recognized, there are signs of softening in internal drug policies particularly in many countries of the “WEOG” (Western Europe and Other Group, including also Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.).  But the extent to which this trend will translate into impetus for change in the international system is unclear, particularly if the United States keeps drug policy high on its foreign-policy agenda.  For a country giving less priority to drugs, there are potential rewards on other fronts from acquiescence to US wishes on drug matters.

            The development of thinking and sentiment on drug policies within the US may thus in the end be the crucial factor in how the international control system develops.  This may mean little change in direction for a long time to come.  On the other hand, there is a previous U.S. example of a drug prohibition – of alcohol -- which seemed permanently entrenched but where change in the end came in a rush.  As Hoover (1951/52), the losing presidential candidate in 1932, noted ruefully in his memoirs, during the months of the election campaign “the country suddenly jelled against” Prohibition.




Revised from a paper presented the 22nd annual Alcohol Epidemiology Symposium of the Kettil Bruun Society for Social and Epidemiological Research on Alcohol, Edinburgh, Scotland June 3-7, 1996.  Data for the paper was collected and the paper first drafted while the author was at the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario (now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health).  The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of organizations with which he has been affiliated.




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