The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

1988 Convention

The 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances represented a significant escalation in the War on Drugs approach. Whilst it constitutes a central UN treaty on drugs, it is primarily an “instrument of international criminal law” [1], classifying drug users as criminals. This is in stark contrast to the period of alcohol prohibition in the US when only alcohol producers and distributers were labelled as criminals and those who used alcohol were not criminalised. As a result of the criminalisation of drug users, Human Rights Watch has declared that “perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national ‘war on drugs’. The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980. In 2000, 22 percent of those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges”.[2]

Its central aim was to harmonise criminal legislation and law enforcement efforts worldwide in order to curb the production, possession and trafficking of illicit drugs through criminalisation and punishment. Stating its desire to “…eliminate the root causes of the problem of abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, including the illicit demand for such drugs and substances and the enormous profits derived from illicit traffic”, the Convention explicitly implies that users must be considered criminals, often preventing them from getting treatment.

It is important to note the context in which the 1988 Convention was written; specifically, the Cold War was ending and the US needed to re-examine its international military strategy. As one scholar has stated: “a curious but convenient alliance was established between the United States and Russia and China—both already in a state of transition—along with such other diverse players such as Japan and some Islamic nations, all rallying to a ‘common cause’ ”[3]. This ‘common cause’ of criminalising drug users and escalating the War on Drugs through the 1988 UN Convention has had incredible negative consequences from that point until the present.


[1] Cannabis: Our position for a Canadian Public Policy – The Report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs

[2] ‘Incarcerated America’, Human Rights Watch Backgrounder

[3] The Development of International Drug Control: Lessons Learned and Strategic Challenges for the Future