Bulletin on Narcotics

A Century of International Drug Control

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The present issue of the Bulletin on Narcotics contains a historical review of the international drug control system, one of the oldest consensus-based multilateral systems in existence. It is rooted in efforts made a century ago to address the largest substance abuse problem the world had ever faced: the Chinese opium epidemic. With this as a starting point, the article outlines the development of international mechanisms to tackle issues related to illicit drugs.

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Achievements and unintended consequences of the international drug control system

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.

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