One hundred years of the war on drugs

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One hundred years ago today, the war on drugs started in The Hague. On 23 January 1912, twelve countries met to sign the first international agreement regulating the drug trade, the International Opium Convention. Little has changed in those hundred years; the United States still aggressively pursues a policy of prohibition, while the Dutch still prefer to regulate drug use.

Marcel de Kort, author of a history of drug policy in the Netherlands, says this country was never keen on using repressive measures.

"[The Dutch] always had their doubts about the international approach of prohibition. Already in the 1920s they called the US approach 'destructive idealism.' "

Profit motive
At the time of the opium convention, Dutch doubts about prohibition were fueled by money. The international drug trade was big business. The trade in opium and morphine had been steadily expanding during the second half of the 19th century. Germany, the United Kingdom and France were all profiting - but none held a candle to the Netherlands.

Plantations on Java gave the Dutch East India company a commanding position in the market, and they reported a profit of 26 million guilders from opium in 1914 before the convention had taken effect.* Cocaine also proved to be a lucrative business for at least one Dutch company which sold the drug to both sides during World War I.

So if the drug trade was such good business, why did the Netherlands host the 1912 convention in the first place? Marcel Kort says the Dutch decided 'if you can’t beat them, join them.' Active participation in what was considered an unwelcome but inevitable development would do more to help protect Dutch economic interests than more stalling.

Delaying tactics
The Hague almost missed out. The United States, backed by China, had been trying for three years to get the major players to agree to a treaty, but European powers kept putting it off. An American physician - the main force behind the convention - finally had enough. Upon hearing of yet another delay, the doctor tracked down the vacationing Dutch ambassador in a remote area in the state of Maine and sternly instructed him to set a date for the convention. Otherwise, the doctor threatened, he'd organise the event himself in Washington, DC. The plan worked and after six weeks of face-to-face haggling, the first international treaty regulating drugs was signed in the Netherlands.

Turning point
The Netherlands and other European powers did manage to water down the 1912 convention, keeping the emphasis on regulating trade, rather than prohibiting drug use altogether. The deal covered four drugs - opium, morphine, cocaine and heroin. It did not regulate synthetic drugs, thanks to lobbying by the German-dominated pharmaceutical industry.

Implementation of the agreement was stalled until after World War I, but then it was included in the Treaty Of Versailles that ended the war. This mean that, in one fell swoop, 60 countries were bound by the convention rather than just the original 13.

In addition to regulating international trade, the convention also required all signatories to pass domestic legislation controlling drug use.

One hundred years of bickering
The diplomatic bickering about regulation versus prohibition which began with the 1912 convention negotiations has continued ever since. The United States walked out of a 1925 conference on the grounds that it wouldn’t be tough enough, and it wasn’t until 1961 that the US finally succeeded in pushing through a more prohibitive treaty.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, established in 1997, adopted the zero-tolerance policy favoured by the United States. Dutch drugs policy today is still slanted towards regulation, but a number of measures have been adopted recently which tend more towards prohibition.

Ironically, as the Netherlands seems to be backpedalling on its liberal approach, a number of other countries are turning to policies which deal with drug-use as a public health and social welfare problem rather than a criminal one. And an increasingly loud chorus of voices from the scientific, political and social spheres are declaring that the war on drugs has been lost and it's time zero-tolerance was traded in for tolerance-under-strict-conditions.

* figure from Economic Histories of the Opium Trade, by Siddharth Chandra, University of Pittsburgh

To read more about the history of drug control, check out the Transnational Institute's article, The development of international drug control.