Regime change

Re-visiting the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs
International Journal of Drug Policy 23 (2012) 72– 81
January 2012

publicationMarch 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This legal instrument, the bedrock of the current United Nations based global drug control regime, is often viewed as merely a consolidating treaty bringing together the multilateral drug control agreements that preceded it; an erroneous position that does little to provide historical context for contemporary discussions surrounding revision of the international treaty system.

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This article applies both historical and international relations perspectives to revisit the development of the Convention. Framing discussion within the context of regime theory, a critique of the foundational pre-1961 treaties is followed by detailed content analysis of the official records of the United Nations conference for the adoption of a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and, mindful of later treaties, an examination of the treaty's status as a ‘single’ convention.

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs represents a significant break with the regulative focus of the preceding multilateral treaties; a shift towards a more prohibitive outlook that within international relations terms can be regarded as a change of regime rather than the straightforward codification of earlier instruments. In this respect, the article highlights the abolition of drug use that for centuries had been embedded in the social, cultural and religious traditions of many non-Western states. Further, although often-overlooked, the Convention has failed in its aim of being the ‘single’ instrument within international drug control. The supplementing treaties developed in later years and under different socio-economic and political circumstances have resulted in significant inconsistencies within the control regime.


Having established that a shift in normative focus has taken place in the past, the article concludes that it is timely for the international community to revisit the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a view to correcting past errors and inconsistencies within the regime, particularly those relating to Scheduling and traditional drug use.

Recalling this history of the Single Convention should do much to remove the misplaced aura of sacred immutability that currently shrouds the contemporary UN treaty framework. Indeed, the discipline of international relations shows us that regimes of all types undergo change of varying proportions during their lifetimes and experience ‘continuous transformations in response to their own inner dynamics as well as to changes in their political, economic and social environments’. As Malcolm Shaw, professor of international law, writes, ‘It is understandable that as conditions change, the need may arise to alter some of the provisions in the international agreement in question. There is nothing unusual in this and it is a normal facet of international relations’ (Shaw, 2008, p. 930).

And in this respect there is certainly nothing unique about the current drug control regime and particularly the Single Convention upon which it is based. The fiftieth anniversary of the Convention is surely an opportune moment to start considering treaty reform and moving beyond current changes within the regime to substantive changes of the regime.

An earlier version of this article appeared as Fifty Years of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs; A Reinterpretation, Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies, No. 12, March 2011.