The international system of narcotics control


"B. Organs established by treaty


Author: Leon STEINIG
Pages: 1 to 6
Creation Date: 1968/01/01

The international system of narcotics control

Its evolution and main characteristics *

Leon STEINIG Rapporteur, International Narcotics Control Board

More than 50 years of effort have gone to create the international system of control of narcotic substances. It started with the International Opium Commission, Shanghai, 1909, and culminated in the Single Convention of 1961. On the way there were complexities and obstacles unexpected when the task had been undertaken by the pioneers of 1909. Even at the Hague Conference, 1912, there was no general realization of the ramifications that national and international legislation would have to develop before they could become effective. In retrospect the journey that started in 1909 impresses one as a continuous voyage of discovery calling at each bend and turn for efforts to avoid danger points, and for new measures to overcome new difficulties.

A succinct summary of the main characteristics of the international system of control of narcotic substances has to stress:

  1. The universality of the system: There are now more than 100 States Parties to one or more of the international treaties on narcotics. Drug addiction, which does not respect national frontiers or differences of civilizations, as well as the internationally-operating network of traffickers who exploit the craving of drug addicts, required a universal effort to meet these dangers. Early in this century it had been recognized by the 13 Powers that participated in the work of the International Opium Commission in Shanghai (1909) [ 1] that the abuse of narcotics is an international problem the solution of which was beyond the capacity of single governments and called for effective international co-operation on a universal scale.

  2. The moral appeal emanating from the objectives pursued by the system: No government could remain indifferent or inactive in the face of grave dangers for the population of its country emanating from a free, unregulated flow of narcotic drugs across its national frontiers; and no government would have been allowed to remain inactive in the face of world public opinion aroused by that government's indifference in allowing the export of narcotic drugs to other countries in quantities that might represent a multiple of the world's legitimate needs. Without material means, armed only with its moral appeal to world opinion, the system of international narcotics control grew in influence and achieved successes that are today a matter of record. The above-mentioned universality of the system would not have been attained without the power of that moral appeal and the pressure of public opinion to which governments responded by transforming their moral obligation to co-operate, into legal obligations under international treaty law to take concrete administrative measures with a view to stemming, under international Supervision, the rising tide of drug addiction.

Note: Based on the author's statement to the United Nations Consultative Group on Opium Problems, New Delhi, October 1967.

  1. The dual character of the substances, the production and use of which the system regulates, and the specific difficulties resulting from that duality: A boon to humanity if used judiciously in medicine, narcotic substances are destructive of man's body and mind if abused. Without intending in the least a comparison of their relative·importance, we can perceive here an analogy between these dangerous drugs and atomic energy. They could be both highly beneficial or destructive depending on the use man makes of them.

  2. The subject to whom the system is extending its care and protection, the drug addict: The imposing structure of international law embodied in international treaties on narcotics concluded since 1912, and the network of special national administrations created to enforce these laws would only be a facade if through and behind that structure we fail to see the human person, the actual or potential drug addict, and act in his interest. The ambivalence of the addict, his two diametrically opposed attitudes to his drug of addiction (he has to have it when the craving overcomes him and he would wish to be free from it in his lucid moments), this ambivalence is the reason for extending help to those who have the will to free themselves from their enslavement. The system has also a preventive function of protecting from becoming addicts those who might be predisposed to drug dependence. It encourages also national research efforts undertaken with a view to putting on the road to full recovery addicts whatever the degree of their dependence.

  1. The unbroken continuity of the effort to keep drugs under control, nationally and internationally, by maintaining the effectiveness of the whole system at a constantly high level: It can be maintained at that high level only if both the national and the international administrations entrusted with the implementation of international treaties on narcotics work efficiently and in the closest co-operation possible.

  2. The precedent building nature of the system: Since the 1925 and 1931 Conventions which proved to be landmarks in the history of the international narcotics control, the precedents established by law and practice in the administrative, economic, technical and legal fields of narcotics control have been followed with interest by international lawyers, national administrators and also by statesmen. From the many examples might only be mentioned the decision of the Council of the League of Nations (of 28 November 1932) to request the Secretary-General of the League to prepare for the Disarmament Conference a study on the possibilities of applying the international control system established for narcotics under the 1931 Convention to the manufacture of and trade in arms. [ 2]

The 1931 Convention is also unique from a legal point of view as the first general international treaty dealing comprehensively with an industrial and commercial problem regulating all the phases of manufacture and use from the time of the entry into the factory of the raw materials to the stage of final consumption for medical and scientific purposes.

Economically this Convention was the first attempt to regulate a group of manufactured products by means of an international agreement. This was achieved by the general acceptance of the principle of quantitative limitation of the manufacture of drugs.

It is important to remember that this treaty brought also non-parties within the full scope of the system of international enforcement of the quantitative limitation and control of the manufacture and distribution of an industrial product. This was an important step towards the legal recognition of priority of the international interest over separate national interests in this sphere of activity.

  1. The nature of the organs of international control established under the 1925 and 1931 Conventions, and which combined under the Single Convention of 1961, into one organ, namely the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), will continue to function also under the 1953 Protocol and 1961 Convention. These organs are international organs in the strict sense of that term. They are not intergovernmental organs. The members of the Permanent Central Narcotics Board (PCNB) and Drug Supervisory Body (DSB) did not represent and their successors in the INCB do not represent the governments of the countries of which they are citizens. Independent of their governments they represent, like international civil servants, the international community as a whole and have to act exclusively in its interest.

Though related to and operating within the administrative framework of the United Nations and closely connected with it, in accordance with the terms of the arrangement agreed upon by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the PCNB and endorsed by the Economic and Social Council, these two bodies, as well as their successor, the INCB, are treaty bodies established under special international treaties. This fact was noted in the Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs (Volume I, page 228) as follows:

"B. Organs established by treaty

"23. While the subsidiary organs referred to in the section entitled 'Nature of subsidiary organs' of the present study have been created by decision of an organ of the United Nations, the bodies referred to in this section [PCNB and DSB] have been established by, or under the authority of, a treaty. They differ, therefore, from the above-named subsidiary organs in that their terms of reference, having been laid down by treaty, cannot be modified by a principal organ of the United Nations."

The fact that the PCNB was not a subsidiary organ of the League of Nations was also brought out clearly for the first time, in an exchange of letters between the Secretary-General of the League of Nations and the Government of the U.S.A. In its reply, dated 19 September 1933 (published in the League of Nations document C.557, M.269, 1933, XI), to the invitation by the Secretary-General of the League of Nations to nominate a representative to sit with the League's Council and participate in the election of members of the PCNB, the Government of the U.S.A. pointed out that the League's Council, in electing the members of the PCNB, was acting as an electoral body in conjunction with an American representative, and that on that occasion the Council was not sitting and acting as the Council of the League of Nations.

So much for the main characteristics of the International System of Narcotics Control.

Considering its gradual evolution it has to be noted that the International Opium Commission, adopting unanimously 9 resolutions in 1909 laid the foundations for the subsequent work of the Hague Conference of 1912 and all its successors. The 9 resolutions are so interesting and important that they merit to be summarized:

The Commission urged on each Government the desirability of the progressively stringent restrictionof the use of opium in any form to medical purposes, of the prohibition of exports of opium, its alkaloids and derivatives, to any country which forbade its imports, and of the gradual suppression of opium smoking. It further recommended that each Government take measures in its own territories to control the manufacture, sale and distribution of morphine, " and also of such other derivatives of opium as may appear on scientific enquiry to be liable to similar abuse and productive of like ill-effects ".

The representatives of the 13 Governments were not diplomatic plenipotentiaries and had no power to sign an international treaty. But only 3 years later, in response to the strong international public opinion aroused very largely through the personal efforts of the delegations to the International Opium Commission, the first opium conference met at The Hague and concluded the International Opium Convention of 1912. In that Convention the general principles of control implementation have been recognized and the obligation of all participating Governments to co-operate in the efforts to stem the tide of drug addiction have been transformed into a legal obligation under international treaty law.

In the Hague Convention the Parties agreed that:

  1. Medical and scientific needs should be the solecriterion justifying the manufacture of and trade in medicinal opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine and their respective salts, and every other alkaloid of opium " liable to similar abuse and productive of like ill-effects ". But in 1912 no general estimates of needs for the world as a whole were available to be used as the general measure to which manufacture should be limited. The decision as to the quantity of its medical and scientific requirements was left to each of the Contracting Parties;

  2. The production and distribution of raw opium should be subject to control; but no direct limitation was placed on the quantity to be produced or distributed, nor were any measures envisaged as to how the control over production and distribution had to be effected;

  3. The suppression of the manufacture of, trade in, and use of prepared opium should be accepted in principle, but the situation was then held to be not ripe for the total and immediate prohibition of the trade;

  4. The manufacture and distribution of opium derivatives should be controlled internally by a system of governmental licensing. In neither case were the Contracting Parties required to do more than to " use their best endeavours " to establish national methods of control.

No international organ had been established to assist in the implementation of the Hague Convention. Provision was only made for Governments to exchange through the intermediary of the Ministry of foreign Affairs in the Netherlands the texts of their laws and regulations and as detailed statistical information as possible on the trade in the drugs and substances specified in the Convention.

The First World War broke out before the Hague Convention could be brought into effect. The Peace Treaties, first by bringing the Hague Convention automatically into force amongst their signatories, and secondly through the inclusion of article 23(c) in the Covenant of the League of Nations, created conditions favourable for further advances.

The first task of the League's Committee on the Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs set up in 1921 was to make the Hague Convention effective in application. Through the information gradually collected by the Committee the disquieting fact began to emerge that the amount of narcotics manufactured in the countries by authorized factories must have been several times the quantity required for the medical and scientific needs of the world. By revealing the extent of the abuses and of the dangers created by them the Advisory Committee prepared the ground for the Second Geneva Opium Conference.

The proceedings of the Second Geneva Conference illustrated very convincingly the considerable difficulties of bringing narcotic substances internationally under control by the direct method of the quantitative limitation of the production of narcotic raw materials and the manufacture of narcotic drugs.

The Conference had originally been summoned under the auspices of the League of Nations to examine "with a view to the conclusion of an agreement, the question of the limitation of the amounts of morphine, heroin, or cocaine and their respective salts to be manufactured;of the limitation of the amounts of raw opium and coca leaf to be importedfor that purpose and for other medicinal and scientific purposes; and of the limitation of the production of raw opium and the coca leaf for export to the amount required for such medicinal and scientific purposes ...".

After long, and at times, very lively debates, neither the plan of the League's Advisory Committee with the corresponding proposals of the delegation of the United States, for the direct limitation of the quantities of drugs to be manufactured on the basis of estimates of requirements, nor the U.S.A. proposals for the limitation of the production of raw opium and coca leaves to the amounts required for medical and scientific needs, were accepted. Finally it became evident that the Conference would not adopt these measures and the delegation of the United States withdrew from the Conference. The Chinese delegation followed soon when all their attempts failed to reach an agreement on the suppression of the use of prepared opium permitted by law in certain contiguous territories and possessions.

After these withdrawals the Conference abandoned the original plans of quantitative limitation of production and manufacture and concentrated mainly on the control of distribution.

The most important and far-reaching innovations of the Geneva Convention of 1925 were:

  1. The adoption of the compulsory system of import certificates and export authorizations;

  2. The creation of a very complete system of statistical control of all transactions concerning narcotics; (iii) The entrusting of the operation of that system to the newly created Permanent Central Board (PCNB), * the first international organ of narcotics control endowed with rather wide and unprecedented powers.

After 40 years of practical operation it is now generally agreed that the statistical system instituted by the 1925 Convention developed and strengthened by the later Conventions is an invaluable instrument of control which the PCNB used to great advantage.

The PCNB in order to exercise the functions of the judiciary organ of the international system of narcotics control and to meet its treaty obligations had:

  1. To watch continuously the course of the international trade in narcotics with the view to preventing any country from becoming a centre of illicit traffic;

  2. It had the right to investigate any matter relating to narcotics which may be brought to its attention by a Contracting Party;

  3. It could seek explanations in respect of apparent breaches of the treaties;

The designation was later changed to Permanent Central Opium Board (PCOB) and finally to Permanent Central Narcotics Board (PCNB).

  1. It could bring the matter of treaty breaches before the Economic and Social Council;

  2. It was to arrange for the publication of its reports; in other words it had the right to address itself to the public opinion of all countries; and

  3. The power of ( a) recommending, in cases of important breaches of the relevant treaties, an embargo on exports of drugs covered by the 1925 Convention or any of them (articles 24 and 26 of the 1925 Convention), and ( b) stopping, by direct notification (under article 14 of the 1931 Convention) to all Parties, new exports to any country if the quantity already exported or authorized to be exported to that country exceeded the estimates for that country.

The INCB, as the successor to the PCB, has all these responsibilities and in addition (under article 14 of the Single Convention) the power of

  1. recommending to Parties "that they stop the import of drugs, the export of drugs, or both, from or to the country or territory concerned, either for a designated period or until the Board shall be satisfied as to the situation in that country or territory." and

  2. calling upon a government "to adopt such remedial measures as shall seem.. to be necessary for the execution of the provisions" of the 1961 Convention.

The Geneva Convention of 1925 came into force only in 1928. It is probable that if this Convention had been generally ratified earlier and very strictly enforced the psychological climate favourable to the direct limitation of the manufacture of drugs would not have been created. But the ominous size of the illicit traffic and the spread of drug addiction on an unprecedented scale which threatened large sections of the population in several parts of the world, the revelation, in the documents published by the Secretariat of the League of Nations, that between 1925 and 1929 at the very least 100 tons of dependence-forming drugs of the opium alkaloid type passed into the illicit traffic, deeply shocked public opinion. This was happening in a period during which the total world legitimate needs in all drugs of both the opium and the coca leaf type were estimated at approximately 39 tons per year.

The pressure of alarmed public opinion reached such a high level that the 10th General Assembly of the League of Nations in September 1929, unanimously passed a resolution directing the League's Advisory Committee on Opium to prepare a scheme for a direct quantitative limitation of the manufacture of dangerous drugs. The Advisory Committee elaborated, as directed, a draft convention that served as a basis for the Conference on the Limitation of the Manufacture of Narcotic Drugs which met at Geneva from 27 May to 13 July 1931 and concluded a Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs. This Convention supplemented the Conventions of 1912 and 1925 and marked a decisive stage in the consolidation of control over the manufacture and the distribution of narcotic drugs.

The international system of limitation of manufacture under the 1931 Convention introduced:

  1. The compulsory estimates system. Under that system each Party as well as each Non-Party to the 1931 Convention, in one word all Governments of all States in the world were requested to furnish estimates of the quantities of drugs required for medical and scientific purposes in their respective countries during the coming year. If a Government of a Party or a Non-Party failed to furnish the estimates in question, they were established for them by the Drug Supervisory Body (DSB) and they were in every respect as binding and had the same legal and administrative effects as if they were furnished by the Government itself. The total of the estimates of all countries represented the world total of world requirements for legitimate purposes. Each year the Supervisory Body sent to each Government in the world a consolidated statement showing the estimates for each country in great detail. This statement is in fact the world plan of drug manufacture and distribution and is binding on all Governments of the world;

  2. The quantitative limitation of manufacture and trade in drugs. No greater quantity of any of the drugs shown in the statement were to be manufactured in any one year in any one country than the total of the quantities shown in the estimates of needs of that country plus the quantities necessary for executing export orders in accordance with the provisions of the 1931 Convention. A non-manufacturing country was not authorized to import in any year a quantity of drugs exceeding the one shown in this statement. If it did, an automatic embargo notified to all countries stopped the exports to that country of drugs imported in excess of that country's estimates;

  3. The effective limitation of drug manufacture was attained by establishing the DSB to administer the estimate system in the manner already mentioned. When the year for which the Supervisory Body's statement had been established ended, the PCB used it as a basis to examine how, whether and to what extent Governments live up to their obligations under the 1931 Limitation Convention; and

  4. Detailed reports on important cases of illicit traffic, in addition to an annual report on all aspects of the national narcotics administration were to be made by governments.

The full implementation of the 1925 and 1931 Conventions - the former in force since 1928 and the latter since 1933 - the working of the closely inter-locking system of national and international controls brought very satisfactory results. By 1936 there was evidence that the traffickers were unable to obtain supplies of legally manufactured narcotics from authorized factories; if there were occasional diversions to supply addicts they were of the insignificance of grams obtained on forged prescriptions. The authorized factory ceased to be the source of narcotic drugs for non-medical purposes; it refused to supply what now became the "black market" in narcotic drugs. Here and there, clandestine factories came into being. In countries with a well-functioning administration they had an ephemeral existence and had to take refuge in areas of weak or non-existing governmental control in the proximity of uncontrolled production of narcotic raw materials (opium, coca leaf). After 1933 the Advisory Committee and the Secretariat of the League of Nations could concentrate on the elaboration of a scheme that would subject these raw materials to a regime of quantitative limitation comparable to that existing for manufactured drugs. This work was advancing well when the Second World War interrupted further progress, postponing it to 1946 when the United Nations undertook to continue the League's responsibility under the existing narcotic treaties as well as the League's efforts to build a comprehensive system of international and national controls over the narcotic raw materials. It soon became apparent that the control of these raw materials, i.e. of agricultural products was a task of a much greater complexity and inherent specific difficulties than the control of factories. A promising and well-started scheme of an international opium monopoly under public administration, based on national monopolies and offering fixed adequate prices to the legitimate cultivators proved untimely in the years 1949-50. After more than six years of general preparatory work the 1953 Opium Protocol [ 3] was signed at New York on 23 June 1953. With it came to a conclusion the international process that started in 1912 aiming at the extension of effective international control to opium. But it took another ten years to put the 1953 Protocol into operation. It only came into force on 8 March 1963, this long period of gestation illustrating once more the deep-seated differences between planning and regulating industrial manufacture and planning and regulating agricultural production.

The 1953 Protocol prohibited consumption of opium for non-medical purposes (exceptions for a limited transitional period were admitted); introduced the system of annual estimates of opium production and opium requirements; "with a view to limiting to medical and scientific needs the quantity of opium produced in the world ". It limited the amounts of stocks of opium which each contracting Party may maintain; it required the establishment of national opium monopolies in the opium producing countries; enumerated nominally seven countries alone authorized to produce opium for export; and finally it increased substantially the responsibilities of the PCNB making it the main international organ for the implementation of the 1953 Protocol in the international sphere. The Protocol authorized the Board to take appropriate action in all cases of non-observance of the Treaty by a government, whether a Party or not to the Protocol, and, in general, whenever it could conclude from evidence before it that the opium situation was "gravely unsatisfactory "; and, as already mentioned, it also empowered the Board to take against a country committing a serious breach of the Protocol the severe sanction of the mandatory embargo on the export or import, or both, of opium.

If it had proved possible to implement the 1953 Protocol as fully in a relatively short period (about 3 to 4 years) as was the case with the 1925 and 1931 Conventions with regard to manufactured drugs, similar results could have been obtained in due course. But, as already mentioned, the regulation and control of agricultural production, particularly in certain areas of the world must take more time than was needed to bring manufactured drugs under full control.

In the meantime, before the 1953 Protocol entered into force, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was signed at New York on 30 March 1961 and came into force on 13 December 1964. This Convention was the crowning result of over half a century of persistent efforts to create international legislation that would bring under effective national and international control all narcotic substances. Indeed, summarized very briefly, the 1961 Convention outlawed the non-medical use of narcotic substances (including opium, coca leaves and cannabis) and their preparations (tran- sitional exceptions were allowed in certain cases for limited periods); it prohibited also (with similar transitional exceptions) the production for non-medical purposes of opium, coca leaves and cannabis; it limited possession of all narcotic substances to medical and scientific purposes and to persons authorized to possess such substances; it extended the system of import certificates and export authorizations to poppy straw and of the estimate system of the 1931 Convention to all narcotic substances; by incorporating the basic provisions of the 1953 Protocol the 1961 Convention provided for the international control of all opium transactions by what amounted in fact to be national opium monopolies, allowing opium production only by licensed farmers in areas and on plots of land designated by the national monopoly (Government Agency). Like the first drafts of an international treaty on opium control prepared by the Secretariat of the League of Nations before the outbreak of the Second World War which took as a model the control system functioning satisfactorily in India, the 1961 Convention, as the 1953 Protocol before it, showed the same influence as far as opium control is concerned. Previously national experience was lacking with regard to the control of the cultivation of the coca bush and of the cannabis plant but now experience in controlling opium has been adapted to the control of these narcotic raw materials.

Time will now test the effectiveness of the first comprehensive and greatly strengthened system of control - national and international - over all the narcotic substances. If lessons of the past 60 years and the experiences accumulated by the national and international organs of narcotic control are a guide to the future, we may assume with regard to the narcotic raw materials that national interests by coinciding with international ones, will give final results which will be similar to those achieved in the sphere of the legitimate manufacture of narcotic drugs.



The Hamburg Criminal Police arrested three members of a gang of narcotics traffickers. The police also seized 12,700 tablets of Preludin (phenmetrazine). ( Deutsche Apotheker Zeitung, 108, 416, 1968.)


1 Austria-Hungary, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, Siam and the United States of America.


2 Published in May 1933 as League of Nations document Conf. D. 159.


Protocol for Limiting and Regulating the Cultivation of the Poppy Plant, the Production of, International and Wholesale Trade in, and Use of Opium.