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.

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.

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.

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.

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs cemented the international drug policy that defines the global architecture of control over substances to this day. Under this system, countries agreed to ban the trafficking of a number of substances — for example, marijuana, heroin, and cocaine, but also committed to providing access to these substances for scientific and medical purposes. Drug use outside of these purposes was not allowed. The Conventions contain four lists of narcotic drugs and establishes strict control over them. The 1972 Protocol on Amendments to the Single Convention contains additions and clarifications to the four lists and includes new substances. The lists themselves are regularly updated and supplemented.

 The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances establishes an international control system over newly developed psychotropic drugs, such as hallucinogens, amphetamine-type sympathomimetic drugs, and barbiturates, as well as hypnotic drugs, tranquilizers, and analgesics.

The 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances aims to counteract drug-related international criminal activity. It identifies several fundamentally new components of drug-related offenses, such as organization, management, and financing. The Convention defines a list of narcotic drugs and types of criminal activities that are prosecuted under international and national laws. It also introduces control over precursors.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) exists to provide the EU and its Member States with a factual overview of European drug problems and a solid evidence base to support the drugs debate. 

The Global Commission on Drug Policy unites fourteen former heads of State or Government, as well as other experienced and well-known leaders from the political, economic and cultural arenas, that feel, that they must advocate for drug policies based on scientific evidence, human rights, public health, and safety, for all segments of the population.

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) is a global network of 192 NGOs that focus on issues related to drug production, trafficking and use. IDPC promotes objective and open debate on the effectiveness, direction and content of drug policies at the national and international level, and supports evidence-based policies that are effective at reducing drug-related harm.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is the independent and quasi-judicial monitoring body for the implementation of the United Nations international drug control conventions.

The Transnational Institute (TNI) is an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable planet. TNI’s Drugs & Democracy programme analyses drug policies and trends in the illicit drugs market. TNI examines the underlying causes of drug production and consumption and the impacts of current drug policies on conflict, development and democracy. The programme facilitates dialogue and advocates evidence-based policies, guided by principles of harm reduction and human rights for users and producers. 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was established to assist the UN in better addressing a coordinated, comprehensive response to the interrelated issues of illicit trafficking in and abuse of drugs, crime prevention and criminal justice, international terrorism, and political corruption.  

The Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs (VNGOC) provides a link between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Vienna-based agencies involved in setting drug policy: the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). VNGOC also works closely with New York NGO Committee on Drugs (NYNGOC) when working with other UN bodies such as the General Assembly (GA) and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).