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Convention on Psychotropic Substances
The Convention on Psychotropic Substances is a United Nations treaty designed to control psychoactive drugs such as amphetamines, barbiturates, and psychedelics. During the 1960s, drug use increased greatly around the world, especially in Western nations. Inspired by psychedelic advocates such as Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, millions of people experimented with powerful hallucinogens, and drugs of all kinds became freely available. Government authorities saw this as immoral and destructive to economic progress. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 could not ban the many newly discovered psychotropics, since its scope was limited to drugs with cannabis-, coca-, and opium-like effects.
On February 21, 1971, a conference of plenipotentiaries in Vienna signed a new Convention worded to include almost any conceivable mind-altering substance. The Convention, which contains import and export restrictions and other rules aimed at limiting drug use to scientific and medical purposes, came into force on August 16, 1976. Today, 175 nations are Parties to the treaty. Many laws have been passed to implement the Convention, including the U.S. Psychotropic Substances Act, the UK Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Like the treaty itself, these statutes usually divide drugs into several classes or Schedules.
Provisions to end the international trafficking of drugs covered by this Convention are contained in the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. This treaty, signed in 1988, regulates precursor chemicals to drugs controlled by the Single Convention and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. It also strengthens provisions against money laundering and other drug-related crimes.
Adolf Lande, under the direction of the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, prepared the Commentary on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The Commentary, published in 1976, is an invaluable aid to interpreting the treaty and constitutes a key part of its legislative history.
International drug control began with the 1912 International Opium Convention, a treaty which adopted import and export restrictions on the poppy's psychoactive derivatives. Over the next half-century, several additional treaties were adopted under League of Nations auspices, gradually expanding the list of controlled substances to encompass cocaine and other drugs and granting the Permanent Central Opium Board power to monitor compliance. After the United Nations was formed in 1945, those enforcement functions passed to the UN.
In 1961, a conference of plenipotentiaries in New York adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which consolidated the existing drug control treaties into one document and added cannabis to the list of prohibited plants. In order to appease the pharmaceutical interests, the Single Convention's scope was sharply limited to the list of drugs enumerated in the Schedules annexed to the treaty and to those drugs determined to have similar effects.
During the 1960s, a wave of drug use spread across Western developed nations, to the point where it appeared to alarmed policymakers to be reaching epidemic proportions. Inspired by Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and a host of other psychedelic avatars, young people began using hallucinogenic, stimulant, and other drugs on a widespread scale. In many jurisdictions, police had no laws under which to prosecute users and traffickers of these new drugs; LSD, for instance, was not prohibited federally in the U.S. until 1967.
In 1968, "[d]eeply concerned at reports of serious damage to health being caused by LSD and similar hallucinogenic substances," the UN Economic and Social Council passed a resolution calling on nations to limit the use of such drugs to scientific and medical purposes and to impose import and export restrictions. Later that year, the UN General Assembly requested that ECOSOC call upon the Commission on Narcotic Drugs to "give urgent attention to the problem of the abuse of the psychotropic substances not yet under international control, including the possibility of placing such substances under international control".
Circa 1969, with use of stimulants spiraling out of control, ECOSOC noted with considerable consternation that the Commission "was unable to reach agreement on the applicability of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 to these substances". The language of the Single Convention and its legislative history precluded any interpretation that would allow international regulation of these drugs under that treaty. A new convention, with a broader scope, would be required in order to bring those substances under control. Using the Single Convention as a template, the Commission prepared a draft convention which was forwarded to all UN member states. The UN Secretary-General scheduled a conference for early 1971 to finalize the treaty.
Meanwhile, countries had already begun passing legislation to implement the draft treaty. In 1969, Canada added Part IV to its Food and Drugs Act, placing a set of "restricted substances," including LSD, DMT, and MDA, under federal control. In 1970, the United States completely revamped its existing drug control laws by enacting the Controlled Substances Act (amended in 1978 by the Psychotropic Substances Act, which allows the U.S. drug control Schedules to be updated as needed to comply with the Convention). In 1971, the United Kingdom passed the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. A host of other nations followed suit. A common feature shared by most implementing legislation is the establishment of several classes or Schedules of controlled substances, similarly to the Single Convention and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, so that compliance with international law can be assured simply by placing a drug into the appropriate Schedule.
The conference convened on January 11, 1971. Nations split into two rival factions, based on their interests. According to a Canadian Senate report, "One group included mostly developed nations with powerful pharmaceutical industries and active psychotropics markets . . . The other group consisted of developing states...with few psychotropic manufacturing facilities". The organic drugmaking states that had suffered economically from the Single Convention's restrictions on cannabis, coca, and opium, fought for tough regulations on synthetic drugs. The synthetic drug-producing states opposed those restrictions. Ultimately, the developing states' lobbying power was no match for the powerful pharmaceutical industry's, and the international regulations that emerged at the conference's close on February 21 were considerably weaker than those of the Single Convention.
The Convention's adoption marked a major milestone in the development of the global drug control regime. Over 59 years, the system had evolved from a set of loose controls focused on a single drug into a comprehensive regulatory framework capable of encompassing almost any mind-altering substance imaginable.
Schedules of Controlled Substances
The Convention has four Schedules of controlled substances, ranging from Schedule I (most restrictive) to Schedule IV (least restrictive). A list of psychotropic substances, and their corresponding Schedules, was annexed to the 1971 treaty. A 2002 European Parliament report describes the Schedules as follows:
A 1999 UNODC report notes that Schedule I is a completely different regime from the other three. According to that report, Schedule I mostly contains hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD that are produced by illicit laboratories, while the other three Schedules are mainly for licitly produced pharmaceuticals. The UNODC report also claims that the Convention's Schedule I controls are stricter than those provided for under the Single Convention, a contention that seems to be contradicted by the 2002 Canadian Senate and 2003 European Parliament reports.
Although estimates and other controls specified by the Single Convention are not present in the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, the International Narcotics Control Board corrected the omission by asking Parties to submit information and statistics not required by the Convention, and using the initial positive responses from various organic drug producing states to convince others to follow. In addition, the Convention does impose tighter restrictions on imports and exports of Schedule I substances. A 1970 Bulletin on Narcotics report notes:
Article 2 sets out a process for adding additional drugs to the Schedules. First, the World Health Organization (WHO) must find that the drug meets the specific criteria set forth in Article 2, Section 4, and thus is eligible for control. Then, the WHO issues an assessment of the substance that includes:
The Commission on Narcotic Drugs makes the final decision on whether to add the drug to a Schedule, "taking into account the communication from the World Health Organization, whose assessments shall be determinative as to medical and scientific matters, and bearing in mind the economic, social, legal, administrative and other factors it may consider relevant". A similar process is followed in deleting a drug from the Schedules or transferring a drug between Schedules. For instance, at its 33rd meeting, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence recommended transferring tetrahydrocannabinol to Schedule IV of the Convention, citing its medical uses and low abuse potential.
The UN Economic and Social Council is the only body with the power to alter or reverse the Commission's scheduling decisions.
In the event of a disagreement about a drug's Scheduling, Article 2, Paragraph 7 allows a Party to, within 180 days of the communication of the Commission's decision, give the UN Secretary-General "a written notice that, in view of exceptional circumstances, it is not in a position to give effect with respect to that substance to all of the provisions of the Convention applicable to substances in that Schedule." This allows the nation to comply with a less stringent set of restrictions. The U.S. Controlled Substances Act's 21 U.S.C. § 811(d)(4) implies that placing a drug in Schedule IV or V of the Act is sufficient to "carry out the minimum United States obligations under paragraph 7 of article 2 of the Convention". This provision, which calls for temporarily placing a drug under federal drug control in the event the Convention requires it, was invoked in 1984 with rohypnol. Long before abuse of the drug was sufficiently widespread in the United States to meet the Act's drug control criteria, rohypnol was added to the Schedules of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the U.S. government had to place rohypnol in Schedule IV of the Controlled Substances Act in order to meet its minimum treaty obligations.
As of March 2005, 111 substances were controlled under the Convention.
World Health Organization evaluations of specific drugs
In 1998, ephedrine was recommended for control under the Convention. The Dietary Supplement Safety and Science Coalition lobbied against control, stressing the drug's history and safety, and arguing that "ephedrine is not a controlled substance in the US today, nor should it be internationally". After a two-year debate, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence decided against regulating ephedrine. However, the Commission on Narcotics Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board listed the drug as a Table I precursor under the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, a move that did not require WHO approval.
The Expert Committee on Drug Dependence cautiously began investigating ketamine at its thirty-third meeting, noting, "Its use in veterinary medicine must also be considered in relation to its control". Ketamine remains uncontrolled internationally, although many nations have enacted restrictions on the drug.
The Expert Committee's evaluation of MDMA, or Ecstasy, during its twenty-second meeting was marked by pleas from doctors to allow further research into the drug's therapeutic uses. The UN was under considerable pressure from the United States government to control the drug in the wake of extensive seizures of the drug by American authorities. Paul Grof, chairman of the Expert Committee, argued that international control was not yet warranted, and that scheduling should be delayed pending completion of more studies. The Expert Committee concluded that because there was "insufficient evidence to indicate that the substance has therapeutic usefulness," it should be placed in Schedule I. However, its report did recommend more MDMA research:
Circa 1994, the United States government notified the UN Secretary General that it supported controlling methcathinone, an addictive stimulant manufactured with common household products, as a Schedule I drug under the Convention. The FDA report warned of the drug's dangers, even noting that addicts in Russia were observed to often have "potassium permanganate burns on their fingers" and to "tend not to pay attention to their appearance, thus looking ragged with dirty hands and hair". With methcathinone having no medical use, the decision to place the drug in Schedule I was uncontested.
Traditionally, the UN has been reluctant to control nicotine and other drugs traditionally legal in Europe and North America, citing tolerance of a wide range of lifestyles. This contrasts with the regulatory regime for other highly addictive drugs. Gabriel Nahas, in a Bulletin on Narcotics report, noted:
Nonetheless, in October 1996, the Expert Committee considered controlling nicotine, especially products such as gum, patches, nasal spray, and inhalers. The UN ultimately left nicotine unregulated. Since then, nicotine products have become even more loosely controlled; Nicorette gum, for instance, is now an over-the-counter drug in the United States.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis, was originally placed in Schedule I when the Convention was enacted in 1971. At its twenty-sixth meeting, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence recommended that THC be transferred to Schedule II, citing its low abuse potential. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs rejected the proposal. At its thirty-third meeting, the Committee issued another evaluation of the drug, stating:
At its 1045th meeting, on April 29, 1991, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs approved the transfer of dronabinol and its stereochemical variants from Schedule I to Schedule II of the Convention, while leaving other tetrahydrocannabinols and their stereochemical variants in Schedule I.
Medical and other drug uses
Like the Single Convention, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances recognizes scientific and medical use of psychoactive drugs, while banning other uses. Article 7 provides that, in respect of Schedule I substances, the Parties shall "[p]rohibit all use except for scientific and very limited medical purposes by duly authorized persons, in medical or scientific establishments which are directly under the control of their Governments or specifically approved by them".
In this sense, the U.S. Controlled Substances Act is stricter than the Convention requires. Both have a tightly restricted category of drugs called Schedule I, but the Act prohibits medical use of Schedule I substances, while the Convention allows limited medical use of all substances.
Article 32 allows an exemption for peyote and other "plants growing wild which contain psychotropic substances from among those in Schedule I and which are traditionally used by certain small, clearly determined groups in magical or religious rites". However, this provision can only be invoked if a Party makes a reservation at the time of signature, ratification or accession. The U.S. Government, in O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal v. Reno, argued that this is an extremely limited exemption. That case involved a seizure by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of several drums of DMT-containing liquid derived from ayahuasca. Plaintiffs sued to have the drugs returned to them, claiming that they used it as a central part of their religion.
The Commentary on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances notes that while many plant-derived chemicals are controlled by the treaty, the plants themselves are not:
Mexico, in particular, argued that "production" of psychotropic drugs should not apply to wild-growing plants such as peyote cacti or psilocybin mushrooms. The Bulletin on Narcotics noted that "Mexico could not undertake to eradicate or destroy these plants". Compared to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (which calls for "uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild" and governmental licensing, purchasing, and wholesaling of licit opium, coca, and cannabis crops), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances devotes few words to the subject of psychoactive plants.
On July 2, 1987, the United States Assistant Secretary of Health recommended that the Drug Enforcement Administration initiate scheduling action under the Controlled Substances Act in order to implement restrictions required by cathinone's Schedule I status under the Convention. The 1993 DEA rule placing cathinone in the CSA's Schedule I noted that it was effectively also banning khat:
A 1971 Bulletin on Narcotics notes:
This provision was eventually judged to be inadequate, and was strengthened by the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances's precursor control regime, which established two Tables of controlled precursors. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs and International Narcotics Control Board were put in charge of adding, removing, and transferring substances between the Tables.
Circa 1999, the Government of Spain proposed amending Schedules I and II to include isomers, esters, ethers, salts of isomers, esters and ethers, and any "substance resulting from modification of the chemical structure of a substance already in Schedule I or II and which produced pharmacological effects similar to those produced by the original substances". The WHO opposed this change. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs did amend the Schedules to include stereoisomers, however, with the understanding that "specific isomers that did not have hazardous pharmacological activity and that posed no danger to society could be excluded from control, as dextromethorphan had been in the case of Schedule I of the 1961 Convention."
Article 22 provides:
Conspiracy, attempts, preparatory acts, and financial operations related to drug offenses are also required to be criminalized. Party also must count convictions handed down by foreign governments in determining recidivism. Article 22 also contains extradition provision, although a nation can refuse to grant extradition if its "competent authorities consider that the offence is not sufficiently serious."
Treatment and prevention
Article 22 allows Parties, in implementing the Convention's penal provisions, to make exceptions for drug abusers by substituting "treatment, education, after-care, rehabilitation and social reintegration" for imprisonment. This reflects a shift in focus in the war on drugs from incarceration to treatment and prevention that had already begun to take hold by 1971. Indeed, in 1972, a parallel provision allowing treatment for drug abusers was added to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs by the Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Article 20 mandates drug treatment, education, and prevention measures and requires Parties to assist efforts to "gain an understanding of the problems of abuse of psychotropic substances and of its prevention" and to "promote such understanding among the general public if there is a risk that abuse of such substances will become widespread." To comply with these provisions, most Parties financially support organizations and agencies dedicated to these goals. The United States, for instance, established the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 1974 to comply with the research requirement and began sponsoring Drug Abuse Resistance Education in 1983 to help fulfill the educational and prevention requirements.
Rise in stimulant trafficking
A 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem report noted:
The report mentioned proposals to increase the flexibility of scheduling drugs under the Convention and to amend the drug-control treaties to make them more responsive to the current situation. Neither proposal has gained traction, however. Due to the ease of manufacturing methamphetamine, methcathinone, and certain other stimulants, control measures are focusing less on preventing drugs from crossing borders. Instead, they are centering around increasingly long prison sentences for manufacturers and traffickers as well as regulations on large purchases of precursors such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The International Narcotics Control Board and Commission on Narcotic Drugs help coordinate this fight by adding additional precursors to the Tables of chemicals controlled under the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
In 1997, ECOSOC called on nations to help enforce international law by cooperating "with relevant international organizations, such as the International Criminal Police Organization and the World Customs Organization . . . in order to promote coordinated international action in the fight against illicit demand for and supply of amphetamine-type stimulants and their precursors." That resolution also called on governments overseeing precursor exports "to inquire with the authorities of importing States about the legitimacy of transactions of concern, and to inform the International Narcotics Control Board of the action taken, particularly when they do not receive any reply to their inquiries".
Pockets of high-intensity clandestine production and trafficking, such as rural southwest Virginia, exist in most industrialized nations. However, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime believes that East Asia (particularly Thailand) now has the most serious amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) problem in the world. A 2002 report by that agency noted:
The Office called on nations to bring more resources to bear in the demand reduction effort, improving treatment and rehabilitation processes, increasing private sector participation in eliminating drugs from the workplace, and expanding the drug information clearing house to share information more effectively.
In 2000, the International Narcotics Control Board chastised Canada for refusing to comply with the Convention's requirement that international transactions in controlled psychotropics be reported to the Board. INCB Secretary Herbert Schaepe said:
To a Board already worried by European experiments with harm reduction and cannabis liberalization, the quiet Canadian defiance of treaty obligations seemed to be another hairline crack in the foundation of global drug control.
Licit drug problems
In an unusual departure from its normally pro-industry leanings, the INCB issued a press release in 2001 warning of excessive use of licit psychotropics:
The Board also warned that the Internet provides "easy access to information on drug production and drug-taking," calling it "a growing source of on-line drug trafficking." The Board pointed out that some Internet suppliers sell controlled drugs without regard to the Convention's medical prescription requirements.
Notes and references
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Convention on Psychotropic Substances
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