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International law The final solution? PDF Print E-mail
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Articles - Law and treaties
Written by Simon Davies   

The quest for a solution to the drug problem has evolved into what can only be described as a poorly but passionately defined debate between supply reduction and demand reduction. Both poles compete spiritedly for public support and public funding. And while each side spbuts platitudes about the need for balance, the end result, inevitably, is a humiliating fracas in which truth and dignity are stretched to the limit.

Throughout this unfortunate battle for drug policy supremacy, the more credible arrn of the demand reduction lobby focused its attention on science, logic and reason. It sought answers through pragmatism and scientific enquiry. It implored humanity and common sense. And it lost the war.

Over the last twenty years, while well-meaning professionals bickered over the definition of harm reduction policy, a massive chain-reaction of events was setting the world irrevocably on its present path to global prohibition. While educators, rehabilitation experts and normalization advocates fought over crumbs from the local or national funding cake, the prohibition lobby — whose philosophy was far better defined and far less parochial — were influencing the development of embryonic international law.

Now, is the world enters the final phase of universal regulation, most demand réductionnistes still carry on the old game, oblivious that the rules have all changed. Domestic drug policy is now an integral part of a much wider international arrangement. Sovereign policy is, in a legal and tangible sense, less possible now than at any time in history. A reformist drug policy may now no longer be possible.

This chapter is a very brief attempt to outline the events leading up to this new international situation, and the extraordinary impact that it will exert on the domestic drug policy of all nations.

The creation of a global community has been made more feasible in the twentieth century largely because the pace and nature of technological developments in transport, communications, and data processing have allowed econornic and trade relations to occur with speed, precision and accountability. The technology was affordable, widely available and relatively easy to master. Of equal importance was the nature of this new techriology, which meant that major and complex international arrangements could be conducted without the establishment of obvious cultural supremacy. All the events of significance happened discreetly and with a degree of subdety. As communications technology expanded through the tvventieth century at a hyperbolic pace, economic relations between nations developed like Topsy. In its wake, a plethora of international laws sprang up, representing global interest in a vast array of issues.

Following the turbulence of the 1939-45 war, many of the world's nations set their sights on the creation of a formal infrastructure to deal with many emerging international issues. In years to come some people came to know this vision as the Global Village. Others knew the scheme more conspiratorially as the 'New World Order'.

By whatever name it was known, this new attempt to harmonize the international community succeeded in establishing a real impact on the relations between countries. The new United Nations, through an astoundingly complex web of conventions and treaties, obliged much of the international community to apply a range of protocols, accords, proclamations, standards and agreements. Many of these obligations were ultimately translated into domestic law. The external affairs powers of some national constitutions allowed the direct incorporation of international treaties into sovereign law. This all took place with little public debate or awareness, despite the fact that it occurred outside the usual democratic process.

The conventions grew by the thousands throughout the 1960s and 1970s. And they covered virtually every aspect of human activity. By the mid-1980s, these various conventions had created a legislative net that influenced sovereign decision-making in all principal aspects of the economy, trade, cultural relations, the environment and human rights.

The formal process of harmonization established by the United Nations is bolstered by an extensive (though not necessarily interlinked) mass of other international organisations, ranging from the 'International Commission of the Cape Spartel Light' to the 'Central Bureau of the International Map of the World on the Millionth Scale'. These groups are represented, in turn, by the Internadonal Union of International Associations'.

But international organizations are subject to a far greater gravity — that of international organization. International organization is a process, a formula, a philosophy, that by its very nature throws up structures. Internationale organization is a fundamental approach to dealing with and seeing the world and its development (Claude, 1964). It is a way of seeing that will determine the future of drug policy for virtually all the world's nations.

This process is not new. It has been developing on and off for more than two thousand years. Every time the Roman, Ottoman or British empires exported another reform to an alien culture, another brick was laid in the foundation of an entirely new and synthetic legislative net.

But now, as we enter the 1990s, the New World Order has reached a handsome adolescence. In the first year of the decade the strength of the Global Village was tested on two issues: the Gulf Crisis, and the war on drugs — both with substantial success. It can be argued that. the mobilization of global opposition to Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq, came about as much as anything by happy coincidence. The same cannot be said of the growing success in creating universal support for a war on drugs. That victory is being achieved as a result of a far greater precision and planning.

The downside of global drug mobilization is that virtually all the internationale unification concentrates on supply reduction. While well-meaning professionals in the harm reduction and demand reduction professions go about the business of seeking real answers at a human level, a massive amalgamation of interests at an international level are determining the real fate of world drug policy. While drug professionals see the solution in very precise and specific terms, the supply réductionnistes view the problem more and more in the way communism was widely seen ten years ago — supra-national, supra-disciplinary, and beyond definition.

If there is any reason why the widespread adoption of rational drug policy is less and less likely, it is because drug professionals tend to be reductionist and analytical, while their antagonists in law and order operate on the basis of motherhood positions.

If any event stands testimony to this unfortunate dichotomy, it can be seen in the recent 'World Ministerial Summit to Reduce the Demand for Drugs and to Combat the Cocaine Threat', held in London in April 1990.

The conference, comprising senior government representatives fi-om 130 countries, divided into two corrunittees — one for demand reduction, and the other for cocaine elimination. From the outset it became clear that demand reduction would lose out. To start with, the demand reduction committee adopted an 'informal' structure; a fatal decision, particularly when their sister committee made no such declaration.

The demand reduction committee produced a series of resolutions similar in nature to countless committees that preceded them. The committee agreed that the problem was complex. It agreed that solution would not be found in the actions of government alone. Nor would they be found in the actions of individual nations. In a word, the chairman's statement said nothing new and proposed nothing of substance.

The statement of the cocaine committee, on the other hand, was entirely sexy. It made exhilarating reading. Rather than adopting an 'informal' approach, the committee members had clearly decided from the outset to agree on a precise position. Accordingly, the resolutions were framed in specific terms. They proposed a definite schedule of action with regard to UN Conventions. Members of the conference could thus take something home with them.

It should hardly come as a surprise that the result was thus. Although the preamble to the conference spoke altruistically about 'balance' between demand and supply reduction, the final communique from the conference came down squarely on the side of supply reduction. It described the international drug problem as a 'plague', and described with great colour the new UN Convention against narcotics as a 'vital weapon against those who ply the drug traffickers' evil trade'. Such imagery, implying that certain drugs and drug traffickers are somehow innately evil, has provided the fuel for prohibition for centuries (Szasz, 1975).

Margaret Thatcher created quite a coup by organising this conference. She succeeded in elevating drugs to the status of a first level international bartering chip. There are very few such chips. Defence support, monetary assistance, trade pacts, telecommunications and postal liaison are among the few that exist on a universal scale.

International conventions fall vaguely into two categories: those which are supported by all, or nearly all, nations (such as postal arrangements), and those which are supported, for whatever reason, only by countries with a common interest (such as conventions on monetary arrangements). Until the Thatcher conference, international drug strategy, controversial as it was, still remained squarely in the upper echelons of the second category along with terrorist control and environmental law. Now, the message has clearly been transmitted that the drug war is about to be elevated to the universal status of such conventions as shipping, postal services and telecommunications. Like the conventions applying to the Law of the Sea, which took many years to establish, the war on drugs will now embrace a significant element of reciprocity between nations.

This shift in the status of drugs is critical to international relations. It means that compliance with the drug war is a fundamental component in the relations between countries. This new arrangement means that countries which fail to comply with the status quo are likely to be excluded from other international monetary and trade agreements.

It is with this gloomy backdrop that we should now turn to the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

The 1988 Convention, which was adopted unanimously by the Thatcher conference, supersedes the 1972 convention in several important respects. The 1988 arrangements are far more specific and demanding. They require compliance with extradition and with freezing the assets of drug criminals. They go at least part of the way to requiring minimum sentencing. More important than all these is the requirement of the Convention that signatory states maintain a state of criminalization over the lengthy and growing list of substances listed in the annexures of the document.

This development takes on a more substantial dimension if you consider for a moment the number of countries which are moving into a 'democratic' phase, and which are signatories to many of the UN Conventions. Their embryonic legal systems will be influenced as much by international agreements as the extremities of the British Empire were influenced by the Westrninster system of government. The pattern is consistent. Watch over the next few years how the more Westernized of the Eastern European nations, as they become members of 'the Council of Europe, will become influenced by the structure and directives of the European Commission.

All this means that the war on drugs can only intensify and broaden in the coming years. Moreover, it can only be argued convincingly that the international strategies against illicit drugs may replace some initiatives by the West to defeat communism. Whether by coincidence or conspiracy, there is litde doubt that the focus of drug strategy initiatives by a growing number of Western nations has taken a military perspective. Through direct pressure from President Bush and Dick Cheney, the US military has been placed on a tangible war footing in Central and Latin America. The imminent merging of the NATO and Warsaw Pact nations means that Western military and intelligence forces might need to fmd other useful targets. With the war on drugs elevated to a primary bartering position, the UN might effectively approve military action against countries which contribute to the trade in drugs.

As if these circumstances were not sobering enough, consider the following scenario.

During the 1970s, the West embraced a rosy view of the world's future. Population and family planning programmes were in place. Agricultural reforrn was proceeding on target, and economic growth in many developing nations had surpa.ssed expectations. It took less than ten years for the optimism to fall flat on its face. Fertility prograrrunes in India collapsed. Population control programmes in China were revised upward. Meanwhile, in Africa, family planning never even got off the ground.

The crops failed. Grain production during the 1980s actually fell in half the developing nations. In 1988, the grain harvest of North America failed, causing a massive drop in the world grain reserves.

Now the world's population is rising sharply — by more than ninety million, a year (more than the entire population of Scandinavia, Belgium and Great Britain). Within forty years, there will be twice as many people living on this planet, eating three times as much food and consuming four times as much energy (Harrison, 1990).

How will these people live? From present calculations, many will survive precariously in polluted, cluttered and underdeveloped Third World cities. Places like Mexico City, which by the end of this century will have a population of 25 million — one-third of them under the age of ten. The UN estimates that places such as this will need to improve their infrastructure by 65 per cent in the next ten years just to maintain present conditions.

Forests will be cleared to make way for the expanding population. Currendy, an area the size of Austria is mowed down each year for this reason. Water supplies will diminish. It is predicted that within ten years, Egypt will be able to supply less than half a bucket of water per day for each person. By 2025, Third World countries alone will be churning out three times more carbon dioxide per year than the whole world does now (United Nations, 1990).

This sad but seemingly unrelated set of events will bear a direct consequence for international drug policy. First, many developing nations which currently have embryonic drug problems are likely to agree to (or push for) hard line drug strategies in return for concessions on such matters as environmental and population controls. It is at this level that drugs become a bartering chip. The bargaining may occur at a bi- or trilateral level, but under the aegis of the international anti-drug conventions, the effect will nonetheless be the same as if these narrower deals were an across-the-board global arrangement.

There is a second strong connection between this impending population, environmental and resources crisis, and the likelihood of an increasingly hard line drug strategy by the international conununity. The United Nation.s, like many of its member states, is turning more to economic rationalism in an attempt to overcome complex problems. Within the process of conservative economics, anything that exists outside the conventional formula (that is, the grey or black economies) is considered a threat to the stability and growth of the economy as a whole. This purely economic view provides a hard and tangible edge of the war on drugs. It expedites the seizure of money and assets of drug criminals and provides justification for the wholesale destruction of underworld economies. Moreover, an economic rationalization allows the widespread intrusion into domestic affairs of countries which, for whatever reason, are singled out as contributing to the drug economy. Whatever its other merits, such a well-defined economic view provides an articulate justification for blind prejudice.

The view of the economic rationalists is likely to find more favour as economies grow towards union, and as the share of corporate foreign investment expands. The growth of foreign investment among all countries is slowly eroding sovereign economies, and is thus providing a much sharper and more real focus for international economic policy
(The Economist, 1990).

There is, of course, a remote possibility that the international community could take the other path. They might go against the grain established in the past, and adopt the view that in an era of diminished resources, the world simply cannot become obsessed with a matter as trivial as drtig consumption. It seems more likely, however, that the view of the rationalists will prevail, convincing nations that monetary growth, tax revenues and productivity are being sacrificed.

Ironically, other less conventional economic studies have shown that current drug control strategies impose significant costs and barriers to an economy (Marks, 1989; Cleeland Report, 1989). Such reports, how-ever, invariably publicize the authors' conviction that prohibitionary policies are not necessarily the cornerstone of social policy. They are therefore rejected out of hand by the establishment.

But despite the dubious claims of rational economic theorists to represent a real picture of the negative impact of liberal drug policies, conservative calculations conveniendy omit several key factors. One of these is the growing problem of sharing injecting equipment in the transmission of HIV, and the health consequences of a prohibitionary approach. The experience of the New York health care system is eloquent testimony to the economic disaster that can be wrought on the public sector when the third wave crashes. Similar problems are being experienced the world over, in places as culturally remote as Bang)cok and Edinburgh. The relationship between prohibitionary drug policies and the spread of AIDS has been all but ignored by conventional drug policies economists.

The Thatcher conference affirmed the necessity of bringing intra-venous drug users into contact with health care and treatment facilities to minimize the spread of AIDS. In the sarne breath, however, the conference communiqué rejected out of hand the legalization of 'unauthorized or uncontrolled' supply or possession of narcotic drugs. In reaffirming the UN treaties, the Thatcher conference had again dosed off intelligent consideration of harm minimization or normalization strategies.

As with so many conferences at this level, there existed an atmosphere of warm mutual support — an environment in which all past international conventions were taken as absolute. At no point were the presumptions and principles of the UN Conventions called into question. Not one article. Not one word. It is against this background of global action that we should scrutinize the worthy efforts of the harm minimization lobby.

The harm minimization sector has developed a focus that could only be described as the precise reverse of the focus being adopted by the prohibi6on lobby. Each passing year, the drug helping profession becomes more local, more autonomous, and more clearly focused by industry and discipline. Each year the harm reduction sector strives for greater democracy and accountability. They seek cooperation rather than confrontation. They seek the reasonable middle ground — even worse — for consensus. And worst of all, the drug helping profession is almost entirely reliant on recurrent governmental support. They are held hostage to their funding bodies. The prohibition lobby, on the other hand, has no such pretensions or restraints. They can operate on imagery, on mysticism, and on a variety of well-executed motherhood positions. The law and order lobby can achieve funding on the basis of what they have no-t- achieVed. They can obtain public support on a foundation of fear rather than logic.

Drug helping professionals have not learnt that logic is a more or less useless weapon against the machinations of the g,lobal position. We have, for instance, adequate evidence that intensification of police activity in any district always directly drives up the local price of drugs, and thus escalates attendant crime (Davies, 1986). The production of such evidence consistently appears to have a counter-productive effect. It seems to prove, in the mind of the prohibitionist, the precise reverse of reality. It's almost as if a pathology is at work.

It could be argued, of course, that this position is far too pessimistic. We might postulate that the war on drugs could dissolve in much the same way as did the war on communism. Maybe so, but I ask myself four questions:

1 Has there ever been a time in the history of humankind when across countries people and governments have acted rationally about the majority of substances?

2 Has there ever been a time when logic has consistendy triumphed over fear?

3 In our noble efforts to inject a little renaissance thought into this arena, a little rational thinking, a touch of scientific reason, are we   gaining any ground whatsoever?

4 Is there any likely event on the horizon that might turn the tide?

The answer to all four questions is, of course, a clear No. The verdict is bad news for the future of rational drug policy.

Internationalism, by its very nature, must be conservative.

The premise of the drug helping profession is that reason will prevail. The premise of the antagonists is that evil will prosper when good men do nothing. While these two positions are maintained, the current trend to prohibitionism is sure to continue.


Claude, I. L. (1964) Swords into Plowshares, London: University of London Press.

Cleeland Report (1989) 'Drugs, crime and society', Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Davies, S. (1986) Shooting Up: Heroin in Australia, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger.

Economist, The (1990) 'The myth of economic sovereignty' (23 June).

Harrison, P. (1990) 'Every beat of your heart, two babies are born', in The Correspondent Magazine, UK.,

Marks, R. E. (1989) 'The economics of drug policies' (unpublished), University of New South Wales.

Szasz, T. (1975) Ceremonial Chemistry, New York: Anchor Books.

United Nations (1990) 'United Nations Population Funds Report on the State of World Population', New York.


Our valuable member Simon Davies has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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