International Law and Drug Policy Reform

Report of a GDPO/ICHRDP/TNI/WOLA Expert Seminar
Final report of proceedings
July 2015

un-building-ny2-ildpfDrug policy reform is currently higher on the international agenda than it has been in recent memory. With a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs set for 19-21 April 2016, the prominence of this issue will further increase. Significant legal and policy reforms at the national level have taken place in recent years that pose considerable challenges to the international legal framework for drug control, and beg important questions regarding states’ international legal obligations.


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As these debates move forward and as such reforms expand, international drug control law, often regarded as distant and arcane, becomes a more immediate and tangible concern. Clear legal ten­sions and, in some cases, breaches, are evident. The responses to these challenges will have ramifica­tions beyond national borders and into international relations, and beyond international drug control law and into the broader realm of public international law.

The Expert Seminar “International Law and Drug Policy Reform,” organized by the Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy (ICHRDP), Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), took place in Washington, D.C., on 17-18 October 2014. The meeting convened international legal scholars from academia, the United Na­tions, and governmental agencies to discuss and debate international legal challenges and dilemmas raised by ongoing drug policy developments. It marked the first phase of an ongoing collaboration be­tween the host organizations intended to inform a fluid and fast-moving debate with robust interna­tional legal analysis.

This report, representing the outcome of the seminar, is intended to help shape the research agenda around the implications of national drug policy reform for the UN drug control conven­tions and international law more broadly and orient the discussion for follow-up expert semi­nars and papers in 2015 and 2016. The aim of this process is to inform discussions and debate at the 2016 UNGASS and beyond and to provide nuanced and well-grounded legal argumentation relating to the future of the UN drug control framework.

After a brief overview of contemporary challenges in the context of international law and drug policy reform, the Expert Seminar was comprised of four structured sessions and a final open session. Each struc­tured session began with introductory remarks from two to three seminar participants. In order to create a confidential setting and to encourage candid discussion, the Expert Seminar was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, under which participants may use the information received but may not reveal the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker or the participants at the meeting. Annexed to this report is a list of participants, excluding the names of those who, under Chatham House Rule, re­quested not to be listed. Also annexed is a collection of suggested readings provided to participants prior to the seminar.

The first session looked at the nature of state obligations under the UN drug conventions; the second discussed intersections with other treaty regimes; the third focused on the meaning and consequences of a treaty breach; the fourth explored reform options within the drug treaties; and the final session—intended to draw conclusions from the seminar relevant for the organizers to consider in planning fol­low-up activities in the broader context of UNGASS and beyond—drew a lively conversation about the “Jurassic” nature of the drug conventions relative to other interna­tional treaty regimes. The interna­tional drug control regime predates the establishment of the United Nations and developed during the League of Nations in the first half of the 20th century, which helps to explain its atavistic nature.