The Increasing Irrelevance of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

The United Nations headquarter in New York (Source: Wikimedia)

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (SCND), the backbone of international drug prohibition, has taken another hit as Bolivia and Ecuador introduce a trade deal that appears to violate it. This is the latest development in a series of countries’ national policies that undermine the seemingly unworkable treaty.

The SCND, adopted by the UN in 1961, forms the basis of modern drug laws. It requires signatory countries to prohibit a range of drug-related activities, including the "cultivation, production, manufacture, […] distribution, purchase, sale, […] transport, importation, and exportation" of an assortment of substances.

In a move that appears to directly contravene this treaty, Bolivia has agreed to export coca-based products to Ecuador. Coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived, is prohibited by the SCND.

Bolivia is the only country that has a special exemption from an element of the SCND; in 2013, the UN granted it permission to allow the cultivation of coca for people who chew the plants leaves. The Transnational Institute says that “the coca leaf has been chewed and brewed for tea traditionally for centuries among […] indigenous peoples in the Andean region – and does not cause any harm”.

Despite this exception, the export of coca remains illegal under the SCND.

To prevent countries deviating from prohibitionist drug laws, the SCND established the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a so-called "independent expert body" that monitors countries’ implementation of the SCND. The majority of the INCB’s members are nominated by national governments. Many have backgrounds in law enforcement and counter-narcotic activity, while only a few are professionally experienced in responding to the health implications of drug use.

Although the INCB has yet to respond to the Bolivia-Ecuador deal, it regularly steps in to oppose progressive drug policy reform being undertaken. Recently, it has demonstrated vehement opposition to cannabis reform.

In 2013, the Uruguayan government was denounced by the INCB for “knowingly [deciding] to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions of the treaty” by voting to legally regulate recreational cannabis.

In 2014, a few months after Colorado and Washington voted to legalise recreational cannabis, the INCB said that it "deeply regret[s] the developments" and called on the US government to "ensure that the treaties are fully implemented on the entirety of its territory".

The group has also issued an uncited declaration that “smoking cannabis is more carcinogenic than smoking tobacco”, despite the reverse being almost unanimously accepted by health professionals.

Due to the mandate provided to it by the SCND, the INCB also attempts to stand in the way of governments implementing harm reduction policies. For example, it has criticised the Dutch government for "the operation of so-called 'drug consumption rooms' (DCRs), facilities where drug addicts can abuse drugs". This is despite significant evidence demonstrating that such facilities are beneficial for people who use drugs as well as wider society - and the growing acceptance of DCRs around Europe.

The SCND’s growing irrelevance thus comes from its inability to adapt to changes in public opinion or progressive policy innovations. Arguably, it was doomed to fail since its inception, as – unlike other international treaties – it was unique in its moralism. While most such documents are worded objectively, the text of the SCND contained unprecedentedly moralistic rhetoric by demanding that signatory states work to combat the “evil” of drug addiction.

If the UN truly intends to combat the harms of drug use, it should repeal the SCND and replace it with an international treaty centred on harm reduction. Rather than advocating for a continuation of the futile battle against people who produce or use drugs, the INCB should advocate for policies that reduce both the harms of drugs and the triggers of problematic use.

As the Bolivia-Ecuador deal is set to further make a mockery of the SCND, it is vital for authorities to recognise that the treaty is impossible to effectively enforce. Perhaps the most telling example for why that is; in the past 55 years, no country has actually eradicated drug addiction.