Table of Contents

  • The Bulletin on Narcotics is a United Nations journal that has been in continuous publication since 1949. It is printed in all six official languages of the United Nations—Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
  • Individuals and organizations are invited by the Editor to contribute articles to the Bulletin on Narcotics dealing with policies, approaches, measures and developments (theoretical and/or practical) relating to various aspects of the drug control effort. Of particular interest are the results of research, studies and practical experience that would provide useful information for policymakers, practitioners and experts, as well as the public at large.
  • A century ago, the Chinese opium epidemic spurred international action on drug control as policymakers realized that the problem was too complex for any one country to tackle in isolation. Starting with the International Opium Commission (Shanghai, 1909), Governments over time established an international consensus on the need for the regulation of psychoactive substances. Moreover, a set of normative instruments and multilateral bodies and systems were developed to help States implement and adjudicate such regulation. As a result, the three main drug control conventions, which form the foundation of the international drug control system, today enjoy near universal adherence, with more than 180 States parties. This volume presents an outline of the historical development of the modern drug control system: why and how it arose, its impact on drug production and consumption and its legacy for present and future international drug control efforts.
  • Psychoactive substances have been used since ancient times, and their use has been well documented as a subject of social history. There are indications that cannabis was used as early as 4000 B.C. in Central Asia and north-western China, with written evidence going back to 2700 B.C. in the pharmacopeia of emperor Chen-Nong. It then gradually spread around the globe, to India (around 1500 B.C., also mentioned in the Altharva Veda, one of four holy books, around 1400 B.C. ([1], pp. 227-233)), the Near and Middle East (around 900 B.C.), Europe (around 800 B.C.), various parts of South-East Asia (second century A.D.), Africa (eleventh century A.D.) the Americas (nineteenth century) and the rest of the world ([2], pp. 9-16).
  • The century-long opium trade was devastating for China, from both a health and a social point of view. Opium merchants, shippers, bankers, insurance agencies and governments profited greatly, but the social and economic costs of having a growing number of drug addicts in China and across East and South-East Asia became untenable relatively quickly.
  • The international conference on narcotic drugs convened in Shanghai represented the first time that the actual situation related to the main producing and consuming countries was analysed in detail. In addition, the first attempts were made to reach an agreement on limiting shipments of narcotic drugs ([43], p. 283). It can thus legitimately be considered the starting point of the international drug control system. The sections that follow detail the evolution of the central concept of this system: action by individual States, within the limits of their jurisdiction, national policies, legislation and resources, in compliance with the provisions of the international drug treaties ([44], p. 63).
  • From 1946 on, the United Nations assumed the drug control functions and responsibilities formerly carried out by the League of Nations. In the years around the Second World War a number of new synthetic narcotics were developed, the most important of which were methadone, developed by German scientists in 1937, and pethidine (Demerol). Both substances, produced and marketed by German companies, were in great demand by both soldiers and civilians affected by the war.
  • In the previous chapters, the emergence and the development of the international drug control system was described, starting with the preparations in 1906, the 1909 Shanghai conference and the first International Opium Convention, adopted in 1912. The long-term relevance of the international drug control system, as traced above, is undeniable. But can the same be said about its efficacy? Ultimately, the most interesting question is to what extent the efforts made by the international community and individual States have had a tangible impact on drug production and consumption.
  • Despite many twists and turns, the history of international drug control set out above tells a relatively simple story. At the turn of the century, the world faced unregulated transnational markets in highly addictive substances. Free trade in drugs resulted in the greatest drug problem the world has ever confronted: the Chinese opium epidemic. Unilateral efforts to address this problem failed, and it was not until international pressure brought the drug-producing nations to the negotiating table that a solution was found. By mid-century, the licit trade in narcotics had been brought under control, a remarkable achievement given that many national economies had been as dependent on opium as the addicts themselves. Illicit markets were an unintended consequence of international controls, and these have proved extremely problematic.