Roadmaps for Reforming the UN Drug Conventions

Robin Room & Sarah MacKay
Beckley Foundation
December 2012

roadmaps-to-reformThe three UN Drug Conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988 currently impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ prohibitionist approach to drug policy throughout the world. This new report explains in detail how the Conventions could be amended in order to give countries greater freedom to adopt drug policies better suited to their special needs.

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There are various approaches to harnessing the growing tide of reform. The most immediate is to work inside the ‘wriggle room’ that exists within the UN Drug Conventions. This process of testing the boundaries of what is possible has already begun, creating tensions in the international drug control regime.

The UN’s quasi-judicial monitoring body, the International Narcotics Control Board, has aimed sharp criticisms at the practices of a number of countries, including the USA, Canada, Australia, and several in Europe and Latin America. Many of them have in turn mounted vigorous defences of their reforms. It is becoming increasingly apparent, in other words, that in the past two years, significant cracks have opened up in the previously unassailable stronghold of international control.

In parallel with this stretching of the boundaries, countries need to consider how their international treaty obligations might be amended – principally because there are severe constraints on how much can be achieved within the room for manoeuvre allowed by the current system. As the cracks continue to widen and the status quo begins to crumble, it is important for countries to be aware of what alternatives are open to them.

This report provides a framework for the development of such alternatives, explaining how countries might amend their international obligations in order to allow them more freedom to formulate national policies that better suit their special needs, in place of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies currently mandated by the UN Drug Conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988. The report explores how countries could be afforded the freedom to adopt, within their own borders, policies that i) clearly and explicitly decriminalise the possession and use of one or more currently controlled substances; or ii) create a strictly regulated, legal, non-medical market in one or more currently controlled substances.

The authors suggest two mechanisms by which these changes could be brought about. By denouncing (i.e. withdrawing from) one or more of the Conventions and immediately re-acceding with reservations, countries could remove themselves from the scope of specific treaty clauses, while remaining committed to the remainder of their existing obligations. He calls this method ‘reform by subtraction’, because it subtracts from the wording that binds a party, but does not permit the modification or creation of treaty wording. This is the path that Bolivia has taken in respect of coca-leaf.

Another option is to amend and/or create treaty clauses in order to permit a country – or, better still, a group of countries acting together – the freedom required to formulate policies that better suit their domestic needs.

The ideas put forward in this Report raise a number of legal and practical questions. On what grounds might countries seek to modify their international obligations? How would amendments be enacted in practice? What would be the legal effect of adopting measures that conflict with existing obligations? In the process of reform, how would the rights of countries who did not wish to change the present system be assured? The authors give detailed consideration to all of these questions, making this Report a practical as much as an academic document.

The report’s editor and lead author is Professor Robin Room, one of the world’s leading experts on drug and alcohol policy. The report also includes contributions from lawyer Sarah MacKay, who puts forward and methodically analyses a series of specific treaty amendments that would give effect to the proposed reforms in those countries that signed up to them.