Possession of narcotics is of course illegal in many jurisdictions. Recently there has been talk of relaxing or eliminating prohibitions on the sale and possession of drugs.

Are there any international treaties or supranational legislation that would be breached if, say, the United Kingdom legalised narcotics? If so, which countries are similarly bound?

  • Do you mean the extra-legal use of narcotics? They are legal to use in the UK when properly prescribed by a licensed physician. And, for example, most "illegal" street drugs in the U.S. are scheduled by the FDA and have legal (albeit very controlled) uses.
    – feetwet
    Jun 2, 2015 at 19:41
  • 2
    No -- I'm asking whether there are countries that are not free to relax restrictions on narcotics due to international obligations and, if so, what are those obligations.
    – Flup
    Jun 2, 2015 at 19:42
  • 1
    Is something like the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs what you're looking for?
    – HDE 226868
    Jun 2, 2015 at 20:39
  • It is indeed. Feel free to turn that into an answer :)
    – Flup
    Jun 3, 2015 at 8:32

2 Answers 2


Yes, there are international treaties that the UK would breach if they legalised narcotics. Those are:

The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961

The Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971, and

The United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988

The majority of UN members are bound by these treaties: 185 of 193 for the 1961 and 1971 treaties, and 189 of 193 for the 1988 treaty. For a full list of signatories and of parties to the treaties, click 'Status of Treaty Adherence' under each treaty.

As to what specific breach the UK would commit if narcotics were legalised, the answer can be found in one of the articles of the 1961 convention:

Article 4. General obligations

The parties shall take such legislative and administrative measures as may be necessary:

(a) To give effect to and carry out the provisions of this Convention within their own territories;

(b) To co-operate with other States in the execution of the provisions of this Convention; and

(c) Subject to the provisions of this Convention, to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs.

In other words, we are bound by this treaty to enact legislation to ensure that the use and possession of drugs is limited only to medical and scientific use.

  • Thanks for your comprehensive and well-referenced answer.
    – Flup
    Jun 10, 2015 at 9:02
  • You're very welcome!
    – lc9315
    Jun 10, 2015 at 9:03

For further information about how countries go about managing their international obligations whilst relaxing domestic legislation, the recent example of coca leaf in Bolivia is interesting. After proposing an amendment to the UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 (which was rejected), the country withdrew from and then re-acceded to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, adding a reservation that exempted coca leaf from the application of the treaty. Some countries objected but not enough to block the country's re-accession.

According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy:

“The idea that the international drug control system is immutable, and that any amendment — however reasonable or slight — is a threat to the integrity of the entire system, is short-sighted.”


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