Notre Master en Sociologie

Drug use, International Legislation and the clock that keeps slowing down

18 mai 2016

2009 Noticias con Prisa Alvaro Küper.jpg
Tous droits réservés : Alvaro Küper,​

After a long expected United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) last April, participants and the international community have had little time to analyse the documents in detail.         With outcomes showing diverse complexities it is still premature to arrive to any conclusions and judgments about the long-term effects and impact of last Aprils’ deliberations. Judging by his intervention during the penultimate session of the cycle of conferences « Les drogues dans tous leurs états » Christopher Hallam, our invited speaker from the Center for History in Public Health, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine seems not to be surprised. During his presentation, as part of the cycle of conferences organized by the Institut de Recherches Sociologiques at the University of Geneva, he discussed how understanding the historical perspective on the evolution of international treaties on drug regulation can show us that advances do not occur at a fast pace.

After briefly explaining how drug use and trade has transformed the modern world, and how every other society we know has used a type of psychoactive substance to modify their state of mind, Hallam explored how drug use continues providing innovative forms of pleasure and new forms of anxieties for governments.

Throughout his conference Regulation of Drugs in the global Governance: How to go beyond the international legislation, Hallam illustrated how a timespan between the ratification in 1961 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which prohibits the production and supply of certain drugs and criminalizes their use, and the last amend made in 1972 (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC 1). In doing so, he  showed that the main drivers that have shaped international regulation, do not always respond to every concerned party, or even to the scientific evidence on actual health risks and social impact.

Today, the US, a country historically committed with a prohibitionist approach, shows many conflicted views within their own territory. Hallam also shared the example of Bolivia, which regards the consumption of coca leaves as a part of the peoples patrimony, defended by the Bolivian constitution, as well as the example of Jamaica, whose Minister of foreign affairs called for a modification on the international legislation on Cannabis, due to the country’s religious beliefs shaping the internal consumption.  Dialogue in this conference shows that politics will do not always align with international momentum in order to transcribe into sound and ground-breaking legislations. However, there’s a place for political achievements in the form of regional alliances, and quoting Hallam:

“If there’s a group of like minded states who wish to do something which is contrary to the drug lords, they are able to do so, as long as it does not result in drugs being trafficked to other countries.  Some of the Latin American countries are looking at the possibilities (…) »

In this sense, some countries are taking the lead, as showed by the call of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala to advance the last UNGASS meeting. However, political will becomes inconsistent, and although Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, offered heated declarations and a call for decriminalisation, prevention and a public health approach (The Guardian, April 22, 2016 2) recent conflicts with his inland law enforcement might raise questions about transparency issues that add to the crumbling faith in governments willingness to work together in an international agenda addressing the so called war on drugs. Different subjects as the religious beliefs, cultural practices, and internal crime and corruption, can turn every national context in an opposing force to conciliating views. A participant from the audience raised the question about the usefulness of international legislation, asking if is there was any value in the international drug control system, Christian Schneider, from the Office Fédéral de la Police (FedPol), Bern, Switzerland, who served as moderator of this conference responded: 

“It is a difficult question, spontaneously I would like to say no (…) but in the current configuration, even without international conventions, you’d probably have huge discrepancies in how the states actually treat users, on the punitive side.  The fact that there is an international mechanism, an international forum where you can discuss things such as death penalty, decriminalization, has kind of a potential that wouldn’t exist if there was no forum at all.”

Although he earlier disclosed that his personal views do not represent the Swiss government, he later explained how a Swiss strategy, involving mainly direct dialogue with harmonizing countries, showed efficacy to coordinate bilateral or sometimes multilateral efforts to modulate the international agenda.

Historically, as it was brought up by Hallam “moving forward was a response to crisis, but now there is no reasonable pressure, probably because there is not a visible crisis.”

This assumption can lead us to think that defining a crisis would be a valuable step in order to make things move faster, or more efficiently in international legislation. We could risk proposing to stand a little bit far from blaming post-modernity as an undefined force that shapes our reality, and looking a little bit closer into the dynamics of the economics and political forces driving drug trade and use.  Finally, the lack of satisfactory response from international fora on drugs could open the door to different strategies, and the role of a Global Health approach could help unveiling and disseminating the real dangers linked to drug consumption, shaping or driving international momentum for a change of dogma.  Whether this would happen soon or not, it will be a question, once again, of time. 


Par Heber Gomez Malave (étudiant du Master en sociologie, Unige)



Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961.  United nations Office on Drugs and crime.

Mexico's president proposes legalising medical marijuana.  The Guardian, April 22th 2016


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