The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs replaced and unified previous international agreements. The convention created a much stricter, more prohibitive zero-tolerance control system with the goals of eliminating opium over a 15-year period, and coca and cannabis within 25 years. The convention was established as a universal system for limiting the cultivation, production, distribution, trade, possession, and use of controlled psychoactive substances strictly to medical and scientific purposes. Special attention was given to substances derived from plants: opium/heroin, coca/cocaine, and cannabis. It had the goal of protecting the “health and welfare of mankind” , and stated that “addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind” .
The 1961 Convention was drafted and negotiated in a very different political and social environment than today. Notably, drug use was significantly less widespread and illegal drug markets were more confined geographically and less diverse. International organised crime, which profits greatly from drug trafficking, was yet to become the global phenomenon that we have seen since. HIV and its transmission through the use of syringes in drug use, as well as the prevalent use of cocaine, synthetic drugs and other stimulants were not significant concerns in 1961. Indeed, it was only after the 1961 Convention’s legislation was fully implemented, did large-scale illegal production of controlled substances begin.
A major negative consequence of the 1961 Convention’s implementation has been the cultural insensitivity experienced in developing countries, where the social and religious use of these psychoactive substances were outlawed after millennia of use. A leading example of this can be seen in the banning of the coca leaf in indigenous Andean communities, where it was considered sacred and was part of the stable diet.
One leading academic has stated on this that “the inclusion of the coca leaf in Schedule I of narcotic drugs of the 1961 Convention was based on an ECOSOC study done back in 1950, inspired by colonial and racist sentiments rather than science” . The problem is exasperated by the fact that the three controlled substances prohibited in the 1961 convention grow in those parts of the world where often the rule of law was weak so that the expansion of illegal crops further undermined civil society.
The Convention has also received much criticism for its emphasis on prohibition and minimal regard for health and harm-reduction issues.
Although the objectives of the 1961 Convention made it clear that its aims were the improvement of the health and welfare of mankind, the measures of success which have been used in the ‘war on drugs’ approach have been the number of arrests, size of the seizures or severity of prison sentences. To quote the Global Commission “these indicators may tell us how tough we are being, but they don’t tell us how successful we are in improving the health and welfare of mankind” .
 ‘War on Drugs‘ Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, June 2011