Drug Policy in Theory

Drug policy is a set of formal and informal agreements and attitudes through which society, governments, and international organizations regulate the interaction between people and substances that alter consciousness and mind. Nowadays, “drug policy” is used mainly in relation to those substances and applications that are considered illegal under the current legislation.

Some history

Throughout ages, people have coexisted and interacted with various substances, studied their properties and carefully systemized them. Many traditions surrounding the use of substances are based on the transfer of knowledge within a certain category of people – for example, shamans, healers, and priests – as well as on strict rules for practices of substance use, restricting their application in other contexts. Apart from ritual use, substances that alter state of mind have been used for recreational purposes, for socialization, and in medicine. Certain rules and regulations for our relationship with such substances probably appeared at the same time as human society itself. Such approaches to the regulation of substances and their use by society or the State are what we call “drug policy” today. Read more about the history of drug policy.

International Conventions

After the Second World War, with the start of the new era of turbulent global transformations that also affected international relations, countries decided to strengthen the agreements on the control of certain substances.

Three international conventions constitute a set of rules regulating the production, distribution, and use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.

Read more about international conventions

All three conventions set out the minimum requirements for the control of substances, and countries committed to adapting national legislation to comply with these requirements.

The Single Convention also established the main monitoring bodies: the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). These bodies are still responsible for the international policy on psychoactive substances.

The CND was formed in 1946 to advise ECOSOC “and to draft international agreements on all issues related to drug control,” – that is, it was responsible for drafting Conventions and Declarations. The CND holds annual meetings where the 53 Member States tackle key issues of international response against illicit substances.

The INCB is the main body monitoring countries’ compliance with the Conventions. It comprises 13 experts – mainly pharmacologists, pharmacists, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and medical personnel. Its original purpose was to license legal opium production worldwide for medical use, but in recent decades, it has assumed broader functions, such as reporting on trends in the trade and use of illicit drugs, monitoring precursors, and commenting on policy trends in UN Member States, especially where the INCB suspects there may be deviations from treaties and Conventions. The Board can only “offer explanations” and “urge governments to take corrective measures.”

In 1991 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was established in Vienna. Its purpose is to provide technical assistance to countries in complying with the provisions of the UN Conventions. UNODC is funded by 17 main donors. The most influential UN body steering drug policy is the CND, which grants powers to UNODC.

New drug policy developments

At present, the consensus that serves as a basis for drug agreements has been shaken. In 2012 Bolivia became the first country to withdraw from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, due to controversies over the traditional cultivation of coca. Later it re-joined the Convention, but with reservations regarding coca. In 2013, Uruguay was the first country to establish a legally regulated market for non-medical cannabis.

January 2011 saw the establishment of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, among the members of which are prominent public figures from around the world: ten former Heads of State, a former UN Secretary-General, and other leaders of political, economic, and cultural life. The Global Commission consolidates efforts in the field of drug policy reform and issues annual reports, where it gathers positive outcomes of experiments with the regulation of substances, and also suggests ways for drug policy to develop further.

In recent years, civil society organizations have started playing an important role in the analysis of drug problems at the global level. They have extensive experience and knowledge of drug issues, which is especially important for governments and international agencies. The Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs is a key body within the international drug control system that facilitates dialogue between CND and civil society. UNODC recognizes the value and long-term benefits of civil society participation in drug policy discussions and, to a greater extent, of the communities that are most affected by drug policy. An important document in this regard is the Resolution “Improving the participatory role of civil society in addressing the world drug problem.” Civil society organizations are also allowed to present alternative — or shadow — reports. They can be submitted to various UN committees and serve as a basis for UN recommendations to countries regarding drug policy.

However, despite the obvious failure of the ban-based policy, some countries are still opposed to global drug policy reform and the revision of existing agreements. Moreover, neither of the above-mentioned UN conventions requires Member States to criminalize drug use and possession for personal consumption or justify repressive actions against people who use drugs. Neither are harm reduction programs prohibited. On the contrary, all three conventions contain clauses that allows for treatment and social reintegration as an alternative to conviction and punishment for drug-related offenses. The conventions also explicitly mention the need to make treatment available.

Currently, drug policies regarding people who use drugs are determined by several basic approaches: prohibition and legalization being on two opposite sides. In between, there are other approaches, such as fines/penalties and/or incarceration for drug possession and use, coercive or voluntary rehabilitation, harm reduction, depenalization, decriminalization, and a variety of social programs. In most countries, different, sometimes conflicting, approaches coexist.