Presentation for Canadian Senate on International Drug Diplomacy

William B. McAllister, Ph.D.
University of Virginia


The international history of drug regulation traces back over a century and can profitably be divided into several general periods. 

·        Between roughly 1880 and 1920 governments and non-governmental actors strove to define the nature of the drug problem and craft initial policies to deal with the perceived negative effects of abuse.

·        From around 1920 to the mid-1930s states and international organizations negotiated an international regulatory regime that supervened and channeled national legislation.

·        During the remainder of the 1930s through the mid-1960s governments and other actors attempted to implement these international/national rules, continually modifying their content and application in light of changing circumstances.

·        Beginning in the later 1960s a global eruption of drug use caused the system's participants to reconsider their aims and practices.


In one sense the century closed much as it began, with differing visions about and solutions for the international drug problem competing for attention. Yet the nature and scope of the drug question changed radically during the 20th century. Governments, international agencies, pharmaceutical companies, medical societies, enforcement officials, etc. constructed massive bureaucracies, engaged in considerable legislative activity, and attempted to implement policies intended to change the behavior of millions of individuals, with varying degrees of success.

Principal Themes 

Of the several themes appear in the history of this subject, the following may be of most interest to the Committee.

1.   National lawmakers and administrators were acutely aware of the interrelation between their domestic initiatives and global trends. American, Canadian, British, and other governments’ activities can be best understood by taking into account the international context within which contemporaries operated.  

2.  Non-medical considerations often played a key role in determining the nature and application of drug-related legislation. A variety of political, economic, socio-cultural, strategic, religious, and other factors have impinged on drug policy-making at both the international and domestic level.  

3.  For the most part, attitudes about drugs and drug control have not differed that much from one industrialized western nation to another, at least until relatively recently. Although overweening American influence is often blamed for the negative results of other nations’ domestic policies, domestic unwisdom regarding the drug issue has been common in industrialized countries, including Canada. 

4.  Canada has historically acted as a leading representative of what I call “consumer nations”—those states that neither produce raw materials (opium and coca growing areas of the world) nor contain significant pharmaceutical manufacturing interests (e.g. Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain, USA, Japan). Canada’s principal interest in international negotiations has been to secure a relatively open market for licit psychoactive medicinal substances in order to keep costs down, ensure adequate availability, and limit supplies to legitimate medical needs.

The Flow of Reaction 

Domestic responses to the drug question in the industrialized west evince a typical "attention pattern." Using the U.S. as a case study: In the late 19th-early 20th centuries American authorities attempted to devise local/national solutions, only to discover that the nature of the drug problem made it necessary to engage in international negotiations. During 1900-1920 American control advocates accomplished some of their goals through multilateral talks, joint efforts, and treaty negotiations, but could not achieve their more far-reaching policy objectives that attempted to solve the domestic "drug problem" by eliminating excess supplies overseas. That disappointment led legislators and bureaucrats to redouble their efforts to ensure domestic action on key policy initiatives between the mid-1910s and the early 1920s. Again feeling the need for international support, the U.S. engaged in high-profile activity at the League of Nations during 1923-25. Frustrated in their hopes for thoroughgoing international reform, American policymakers turned to domestic measures until 1930-31. At that time a combination of bureaucratic, economic, and strategic imperatives impelled greater U.S. participation in transnational negotiations. This pattern recurred, with major domestic activity taking place during the later 1930s and early 1940s, the mid-1950s, and from the later 1960s-through the early 1970s. Important international initiatives took place during the early 1940s through the early 1950s, during the mid-1960s, and in the early 1970s. Since that time the progression has been more mixed, but one can nevertheless discern the yin-yang nature of drug policy: success or failure on the domestic front leads to new activities in the international arena, and vice-versa. The "inward" and "outward" periods do not correspond precisely, but the general pattern recurs. Most governments have gone through similar undulations as they attempt to wrestle with the complexities of the drug question. P.J. Giffen, Shirley Endicott, and Sylvia Lambert, Panic and Indifference: The Politics of Canada’s Drug Laws” outlines the domestic aspects of roughly the same progression in the case of Canada.


{Handouts/Overheads for BRIEF NARRATIVE OVERVIEW}

 The Historical Sequence


1: Later 1800s-early 1920s

-     problem was identified and classified

-     early attempts to construct national and trans-national solutions


2: Mid-1920s-early 1930s

-    creation of a set of rules, procedures, and expectations (normative behaviors) for international conduct with regard to drug control (The section below outlines the tenets developed during this period and expanded upon in subsequent periods.)


3: mid-1930s-mid 1960s

-     attempts to enforce, refine, and modify the international control system to meet changing conditions.


4: mid-1960s-mid 1970s

-         Explosion of drug use worldwide and fundamental challenges to the control system. Responses include:

o        movements to impose controls over psychotropics

o       re-organization of bureaucracies

o       reconsideration of demand-side issues.


5: mid-1970s-present

-     Bureaucratization -- end of the era of the “Gentlemen’s Club,” where individuals could have a profound impact on policy conceptualization and implementation. The apparatus for changing the trajectory of the control system becomes much more cumbersome to re-direct.

-     Professionalization -- drug enforcement officials, traffickers, treatment programs, and other interest groups become more effective at their tasks.

-     Globalization -- all aspects of the drug-industrial complex become fully integrated into the world political economy.


The Flow of Reaction

Time Period Emphasis on Domestic efforts Emphasis on International efforts
1880s-1910s   X
early 1920s X
later 1920s-early 1930s X
mid-late 1930s X
late 1930s-mid 1940s X
late1940s-early 1950s X
mid-late1950s X
late 1950s-mid 1960s X
late 1960s-mid 1970s X X




     Supply-Control (NOT PROHIBITION) became enshrined as the ruling paradigm of the regime by the mid-1920s. The goal of the system was, and primarily still is, to reduce supply to medicinal, scientific, and industrial needs (rather than to eliminate availability altogether). Many observers have misunderstood the thrust of international/national legislation by confusing regulation with prohibition. Prohibition has rarely been enacted, because almost all substances retain some legitimate uses. Rather, control advocates religiously adhered to the contention (however questionable) that by drying up excess capacity that might otherwise migrate to the illicit market, the addiction problem would disappear of its own accord. 

     National Control retains pride of place at the expense of substantive restrictions imposed by external agencies. Nation-states have proven unwilling to surrender their prerogatives. Consequently, governments circumscribed the powers of supra-national regulatory bodies, such as the International Narcotics Control Board (and its predecessors), created by international treaty. 

     Indirect as opposed to Direct control: Governments report estimates of need, actual usage, imports, exports, and reserve stocks to the international organs. The international authorities possess no power to approve transactions ahead of time (direct control), but may only object after the fact to any behavior that appeared inappropriate (indirect control). 

     The international regime favors Free Trade over substantive limitations on manufacture and/or agricultural production. Attempts to institute quotas for production, manufacture, and/or consumption have consistently been rejected. This consideration plays an especially important role during times of economic depression. Consumers do not want to pay more than necessary for legitimate medicinal products. Neither agricultural states that produce raw materials nor manufacturing states that make finished pharmaceutical products want significant limitations on their freedom to sell in the legitimate market. As a consequence, the system features considerable excess supply/capacity, and thus fosters attempts to regulate the licit trade while suppressing illegitimate traffic.

     Control is effected through "Schedules" based on presumptions about addictive propensity. In the 1930s’ for example, control officials concluded that some substances, such as codeine, should not suffer under the same strictures as more addicting and less medicinally useful substances like heroin. Opiates, coca products, and marihuana were generally considered guilty until proven innocent, although the opposite calculation applied to psychotropics developed after World War II. Regulatory mechanisms provide medical experts, pharmaceutical companies, the research community, and industrial interests with opportunities to state their positions during the scheduling process, but political appointees and bureaucrats rather than technical experts usually make the key scheduling decisions. Since its introduction in the 1931 treaty this "schedule approach" to control, featuring tiered levels of regulation, influenced the research and development agendas of pharmaceutical manufacturers. Companies strove to concoct medicinally useful substances that did not meet the extant criteria for addiction. In so doing, fundamental questions about the nature of addiction and why individuals chose to abuse remained in abeyance.

     In sum, the configuration of the regime in place since the mid-1930s amounts to a struggle for comparative regulatory advantage within a set of relatively predictable worldwide marketing rules. The framers intended to create a barrier high enough to keep out unscrupulous players but low enough not to impede commerce among "legitimate" firms. The principal emphases of importance here are that the international regulatory scheme applied to drugs existed in an atmosphere that emphasized supply control at the expense of other policy options such as rehabilitation, treatment, and/or prevention; that the regime was designed primarily to control rather than to prohibit; and that geopolitical and other concerns were more important than medical factors in the creation and operation of the system.  



The key distinction enshrined in the operation of the system is between medical and industrial/commercial uses (legitimate) as opposed to recreational use (illegitimate).   

Laws matter: Even if legislation fails to eliminate a non-desired behavior, it shapes peoples’ and governments’ actions and expectations.  

Do not underestimate the power of informal controls: social curbs on behavior are often effective.  

The problem is now truly transnational in scope, emanating largely from world trade patterns and technological changes. Nevertheless, only national governments have the power to deal with it. Responses to the drug problem usually appear inherently unsatisfying, but there are better and worse options to choose from. Making changes in the global paradigm is possible, but that will require individual governments to alter national norms and expectations in order to slowly influence international behavior and attitudes. 

The key question is not whether or not there should be access to a particular substance. The essential question is who is granted the authority to regulate access and under what conditions

Watch out for “bottleneck thinking,” in which the claim is that the problem can be “solved” by constricting some alleged “choke point” in the apparatus of supply of illicit substances. The clearest example of this is the “80% rule”: when one hears claims in the media that a particular country or region supplies “80% of the world’s heroin,” it is a sure sign that some other political agenda is afoot. Bottleneck thinking can also apply to treatment and prevention strategies. 


Questions for the Senate to consider about prospective legislation:

-         Can you define “success” in a way that is both measurable and politically acceptable? (What level of drug abuse is acceptable?) 

-         Can you support initiatives to alter/shape behavior by non-legislative means and/or indirect legislative means?  

-         Can you balance supply control with substantive demand reduction and industrial/commercial/medical regulatory needs? 

-         Can you institute a robust, thoroughgoing a cost-benefit analysis of prospective legislation? (This includes assessment of the costs attendant to a lack of control-oriented legislation.) 

-         Non-medical considerations will continue to impact the nature and application of drug-related policy. How will you account for that in fashioning new legislation?

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