The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Drug Control

The global drug prohibition system began 50 years ago, and continues to be driven by ideological imperatives while failing to take into account  the  complex realities surrounding the drug trade and drug use.

The global prohibition of drugs was launched in 1961 when the United Nations signed a Convention instituting a worldwide ban on opium, cocaine and cannabis. This strategy was intensified by US President Richard Nixon when he formally declared the War on Drugs on 17 June 1971. From the 1960s onwards political elites at both national and international levels have perceived drugs as a ‘menace’ to society and agreed that drug use and the drug trade must be suppressed.

The UN has a major role in the implementation and continuation of international drug laws and the overall prohibition. The rhetoric and legislation of the UN advances and advocates the US-led approach to drug prohibition, labelling drug use as a ‘danger to mankind’ [1]. The UN has promoted the view that “no nation is immune from the devastating consequences of drug abuse” [2], and guarantees full political backing from the international community for prohibitionist policies.

The UN Drug Conventions (1961, 1971 and 1988) represent the core of drug prohibition. Countries that have signed up to these laws must adhere to this international legislation by prohibiting controlled drugs for anything other than medical or scientific purposes. Thus, within this system of global drug prohibition, the production, sale, possession and use of drugs are punished by criminal sanctions in most nations. As of January 2005, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 had 180 Parties.



The difficulty in defining the success of this campaign lies in the fact that it is an ideological war, and therefore is phrased in terms of a never-ending battle between the perceived forces of good and evil. The U.N’s slogan of a drug free world is riddled in confusion and contradiction, for instance the “Drug free America” corporation is financially supported by leading tobacco companies ( 2010 [online]).  The line between the legal and illicit is a historically problematic one, and therefore the war on drugs has inevitably evolved into one of the most controversial and provocative pieces of American policy. In order to justify the collateral damages produced by the drugs war, the policy must at least prove to be achieving its identified goals and maintaining the values of democracy and freedom (something it has failed to do with devastating consequences).

Collateral damage is a contentious notion in of itself when considering the war on drugs. How can one differentiate between the social decay caused by prohibition, and the deformation and despair caused by drugs themselves? Would certain tales of drug related torment and calamity exist regardless of prohibition, or hard line policy? All too often it could be suggested that statistical evidence incorporates facts and figures that transcend the ambiguous line of policy produced collateral damage. However the sheer quantity of literature and statistical data that regards the drug war as at least an unwinnable war and at most a shamefully corrupt failure of democracy and human rights that must be addressed.

During a U.N conference in 1998 General McCaffery was handed an article published in the New York Times running with the banner; “ The Global War on Drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself” ( Barker, 32: 1999).  The New York Times has seemingly taken a U-turn on prohibitionist thought since its 1914 publication of cocaine induced moral panics, shaking up the conventional wisdom about the war on drugs.

 The capacity to aesteticize existence and reconceptualize reality are properties shared by both legal and illegal drugs. The ambiguous conceptualization of the illicit is dependent upon the time and space we occupy; nevertheless control has remained the one consistent theme that defines all forms of drug taking (Bamyeah, Nielson: 2009). From the pharmaceutical world to prohibitionist policies, and even the village elder’s control of ritualistic forms of recreation, it must be noted that drugs are a natural extension of human existence and subsequently are here to stay.

This has proven to be an ironically difficult pill to swallow for those driving the American war on drugs. And although many nations such as Portugal and Switzerland move toward a more liberal treatment orientated development strategy, the attitudes of prohibition remain a powerful ideology within the major global players in the war on drugs.  This offers an explanation as to why the war on drugs has continued with unprecedented failure for over four decades. Prohibitionist thought evolved in a period of colonial enterprise, social tension, racism and a lack of medical and scientific understanding (Keefer, Loayza, 2010:91), the fact such values continue to inform drug policy today is deeply problematic.


[1] UN Conference for the Adoption of a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Volume II, (New York: UN Publications, 1964), p.300.

[2] The United Nations and Drug Abuse Control (New York: United Nations International Drug Control Programme, United Nations Department of Public Information, 1992), quoted in D. Bewley-Taylor, The United States and International Drug Control, 1909-1997, (New York and London: Pinter, 1999), p.7.