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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Legislative Options for Cannabis - Australian Government

Chapter 3.


Development of international treaties

Australian drug laws, like those of many other countries, closely follow the development of international drug laws, so in this section the growth of international drug treaties will be described. These treaties are designed to control the international traffic in certain drugs and to encourage domestic restrictions on their supply and use.

The influence of the United States in the conception and development of these instruments has been enormous. Justice Michael Kirby has characterised the degree of international cooperation brought about by the fear of drugs as 'exceptional' (1992, p312). However, fear was not the only ingredient in early crusading by the United States for international action. A complex array of factors was at work.

The first international meeting on drugs was concerned with opium and, in particular, with Britain's opium trade with China. It was attended by 13 nations and held in Shanghai in 1909. At the Shanghai Conference the United States argued for a total prohibition on opium, and was opposed by the United Kingdom. According to [22]Abel (1980) the background to the meeting was as follows.

In 1882 the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. In retaliation, China prohibited the importation of American manufactured goods: Faced with the loss of the lucrative Chinese market, and aware of China's efforts to eradicate its own domestic opium problem, President Theodore Roosevelt convened an international conference in 1909 in Shanghai to help China eradicate the problem of opium addiction among its inhabitants. By trying to impress China with its goodwill and concern about her drug crisis, the United States hoped to change China's attitude towards American goods' [23](Abel, p193).

While economic factors were undoubtedly important in precipitating US action, they were not the only considerations. Fear of social unrest, racist attitudes and moral crusading all played a part. In addition: Missionaries from the United States in China had long been publicising the source and the pernicious effects of opium smoking among the Chinese. Given the role of England in that trade, the [Indian Hemp Commission] report seemed like a whitewash for British commercial purposes and fanned American progressive opinion even further against the European imperialists in Asia [24](South Australia 1979, p42).

The 1909 conference did not produce an international treaty. Another international drugs conference was held in 1912. At the 1912 Hague Conference some 46 nations discussed morphine, cocaine, cannabis and heroin, as well as opium. The outcome of the conference was the Hague Convention for the Suppression of Opium and Other Drugs. It required the parties to 'confine to medical and legitimate purposes the manufacture, sale and use of opium, heroin, morphine and cocaine' [25](quoted in Manderson 1993, p63) Both the United States and Italy wanted cannabis included in the Convention, but they were unsuccessful.

The 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs was a more significant document. As a result of lobbying by Egypt, Turkey and South Africa, who were supported by the United States, cannabis was included in the Convention. The Convention also created an international scheme for the monitoring and control of traffic in narcotic drugs, together with an administrative agency - the Permanent Central Opium Board. Import and export quotas were established, as well as statistical reporting requirements. The Convention required the parties to 'enact effective laws to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the manufacture, import, sale, distribution, export and use of cannabis in the form used for medical purposes at the time' [26](South Australia 1978, p34). Significantly, the word 'legitimate' which appeared in the 1912 Hague Convention was removed from the 1925 Geneva Convention.

Finally, the Narcotics Limitation Convention of 1931 targeted the manufacture of narcotics and required the parties to limit it to scientific and medical purposes. Controls on licit manufacture were seen as important, because apart from illicit imports from abroad, leakage from the licit market was a source of illicit use in Western nations. .


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