International Law and Psychedelics

International Psychedelic Laws: a Brief History

While research in the psychedelic industry continues to demonstrate positive outcomes around the world, international legal frameworks criminalizing the use of psychedelic substances remain stringent. The United Nations formed three treaties between 1960 and 1990 that provide a legal basis of global cooperation in drug control laws.

These treaties, namely, the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or Single Convention; the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances or Psychotropic Convention; and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988, or Trafficking Convention, are attempts at creating a balance between the health and welfare of people, while letting governments make realistic decisions on the use of psychoactive substances, according to the UN Board.

“The primary goal of the international drug control regime has never been to eliminate illicit drug use. The most important objective of the delegates to the 1961 and 1971 conventions was to protect sundry economic, social, cultural, religious, and/or geopolitical interests,” the historian William B. McAllister writes.

International Treaties on Drugs: Where did it Begin?

The international laws controlling the production, trade, and use of psychedelics are a 20th-century phenomenon and a fairly recent addendum to the traditional consumption of psychoactive substances. The first agreement, the Single Convention, was initiated in the 1960s by the United States as a step towards the Nixon Administration’s War on Drugs. As the United States emerged as a powerful force politically and economically after World War II, the country gained greater influence over decisions on an international scale. 

Incidents Which led to the Formation of the Three Treaties we Follow Today

The dynamics of international law enforcement changed after the Second World War, as the newly formed United Nations took charge of drug policies through its Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). With this board coming into existence, the Single Convention became the main model of the international drug control system, which was also a global extension of the agreements and reforms enacted between 1909 and 1953. The board had started its work on the compilation of all the previous agreements in 1948, but could only present its first draft in 1961.

In his book, Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century, William B. McAllister writes, “During the course of the 1961 negotiations, delegations from producer countries fought consistently to loosen controls the draft placed on opium, coca, and cannabis. They argued that manufactured substances, especially synthetic narcotics, should be controlled at least as strictly as raw materials.”

While the treaties were taking shape, international politics and economics had started to overtake the conversation. There was a strong rift between countries producing and consuming the substances. There were visible efforts by delegations in the UN to control the supply but not the production of psychedelics as pharmaceutical companies exerted pressure from the other end, with the United States controlling the conversation entirely.

In the meantime, the discovery of new psychotropic substances in the 1950s, which were showing promising therapeutic results, was also proving to be culturally acceptable. As discussions went on, the British-led manufacturing alliance continually defied attempts to put psychotropic substances under international legal control. As things progressed, an anti-psychotropic resolution was put forward to prevent the psychotropic substance from becoming illegal but it “failed by one vote,” McAllister writes.

“Bowing to their domestic pharmaceutical interests, blind to the cultural bias that privileged ‘modern’ western drugs, and not wishing to let producer states off the hook concerning the ‘real problem,’ manufacturing states shunned the chance to nip a potentially serious matter  [of testing the psychedelic drugs] in the bud,” McAllister writes while describing the double standards of countries debating the psychotropic drugs during the formation of the Single Convention.

Final Work on International Treaties

As the work on the first treaty was concluded, the UN board had come up with four classifications of substances– Schedule I to IV. While Schedule I and IV stand as the most stringent and incorporate the raw organic substances like opium, cannabis, coca, heroin and cocaine, Schedule II and III were more relaxed.

While the Single Convention brought all the previous treaties under the same international law governing the use of drugs, the Psychotropics Convention allowed some room for negotiations as European and North American pharmaceutical companies continued to show interest in research. The second treaty allows freedom in some aspects as long as domestic governments don’t make changes to their legislation. The third treaty, the Trafficking Convention, subtly made its way in, establishing a system to track and penalize global drug trafficking.

McAllister writes, “The amount of time actually spent at the conferences discussing the problems of addicted individuals, how to help them, and how to prevent more people from joining their ranks was minimal. Until these priorities change, problems with widespread drug abuse, and the attendant cost in human and material capital, will continue.”

Psychedelics are now governed globally under the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). There are 186 signatory countries to the Single Convention, 184 countries which are part of the Psychotropic Convention, and 190 signatories to the Trafficking Convention, as of a March 2019 Treaties listing.

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