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Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

Chapter 19 - The International Legal Environment

The 1909 Shanghai Conference

U.S. interest in international drug control grew substantially following the Spanish-American War, which led to its acquisition of the Philippines in 1898.[1][10] The acquisition brought with it what the American administration perceived as a serious problem: a government-run opium supply monopoly. Under the guidance of the new Episcopal Bishop of the Philippines, Charles Henry Brent, the monopoly was shut down. Yet smuggling continued, and Brent, who regarded the opium issue as a moral question and use of the drug as “a social vice … a crime,” persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to support holding an international meeting in Shanghai to remedy what was clearly a regional problem.[2][11]  

In February 1909, the International Opium Commission[3][12] met in Shanghai, with Brent as its president. However, because the participants did not have the necessary plenipotentiary powers to conclude a treaty, the result was simply a collection of facts and a set of non-binding recommendations. In the discussions on the Commission’s terms of reference, one question that arose was whether drug-related medical issues, such as addiction and its treatment, should be considered; the proposal was defeated (by a majority of one) because it was felt that there was insufficient medical expertise present at the meeting.[4][13] This set a telling precedent: most subsequent drug meetings would be attended predominantly by diplomats and civil servants, with little significant input from medical experts.

The negotiations during the Commission’s meetings laid the groundwork for future conferences. The U.S., aggressively represented by Hamilton Wright, tried to persuade the colonial powers to support a narrow definition of “legitimate use” of opium, under which any non-medical or non-scientific use–by Western medical and scientific standards–would be considered illicit. The colonial powers advocated a softer approach, which would permit “quasi-medical use”. In the final wording of Resolution 3, the Commission concluded “that the use of opium in any form otherwise than for medical purposes is held by almost every participating country to be a matter for prohibition or for careful regulation; and that each country in the administration of its system or regulation purports to be aiming, as opportunity offers, at progressively increasing stringency” (emphasis as in original).

The Commission was, in fact, far from “international”. The focus was on China’s opium problems–five of the nine resolutions mentioned China by name–and the U.S. and Britain dominated the discussions. The U.S. was pushing for prohibition and felt that China needed assistance with its domestic opium problems. Britain worked to protect its lucrative Indian opium trade, arguing that curbing such trade would be useless until China brought its domestic production under control.[5][14]  

Underlying the U.S. delegation’s hard-line stance at the Shanghai meeting were key domestic political and economic goals that would also colour later negotiations. It was assumed that if other countries controlled their own opium production and exports, the U.S. would not be burdened with the task, because the poppy and the coca leaf had never been grown in appreciable quantities in North America. Furthermore, international agreements calling on countries to take drastic internal measures provided ammunition for Brent and Wright, who were pressuring the U.S. government to develop stringent domestic drug control laws.[6][15]


[1][10]  Lowes, P.D. (1966) The Genesis of International Narcotics Control. Geneva: Droz, page 102.

[2][11]  Bewley-Taylor, D.R. (1999) The United States and International Drug Control. page 19.

[3][12]  The Commission included all the colonial powers in the region – Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal and Russia – and China, Siam [now Thailand], Persia [now Iran], Italy and Austria-Hungary. (McAllister (2000), page 28)

[4][13]  Bruun et al. (1975), page 11; Lowes (1966), page 187-188.

[5][14]  Walker III, William O., (1991) Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, page 16-17; Lowes (1966), page 152-153.

[6][15]  Musto (1999), page 36-37.

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