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International Conventions

The main aim of the 1961 and 1971 UN Conventions was to create an international control system to monitor the production of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances by prohibiting any use of substances not previously permitted by the national authorities. Under these Conventions, any use, possession, production and so on of scheduled substances is forbidden, except when exclusively intended for 'medical and scientific purposes' (art. 4.c, 1961 Convention; art. 5.2, 1971 Convention).

The preamble to the 1961 Single Convention recognises:

That the medical use of narcotic drugs continues to be indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering and that adequate provision must be made to ensure the availability of narcotic drugs for such purposes.

This demonstrates that, while building up a system based on a prohibitive approach towards drugs, the 1961 Convention was also concerned with allowing the use of some of those substances in pain therapy. The Conventions, however, do not clarify what the 'medical and scientific purposes' are, nor do they specify which substances can be used for these purposes.

The 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances requires its signatories to 'adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences under its domestic law' certain acts (art. 3.1.a.i). These acts relate to actions prohibited under the 1961 and 1971 Conventions, for example the illicit manufacture, distribution or sale of any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance. Since the 1961 Convention clearly permits the authorised provision and use of drugs, including heroin, for 'medical or scientific purposes', such use is also possible under the 1988 Convention.

Controlled substances
Narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances are listed in the four Schedules to the 1961 Convention and the four Schedules to the 1971 Convention according to their therapeutic value, risk of abuse and health dangers.

Article 2 of the 1961 Convention introduces control measures for these schedules. Drugs listed in Schedule I, 'are subject to all measures of control applicable to drugs under this Convention'. Controls for substances listed in Schedules II and III are less strict because of the therapeutic properties of these substances. The most dangerous drugs, those listed in Schedule IV, have extremely limited medical and therapeutic value and are subject to the strictest controls.

To regulate the trade and distribution of narcotics used for medical purposes, the 1961 Single Convention introduces a control system based on authorisations and licences, including the need for medical prescriptions to supply or dispense contolled drugs. Article 30.2.b.ii states that, if deemed 'necessary or desirable':

Prescriptions for drugs in Schedule 1 should be written on official forms to be issued in the form of counterfoil books by the competent governmental authorities or by authorized professional associations.

Thus if a country considers that prescribing a controlled drug is 'necessary' and not contrary to the general purposes of the Convention, it may do so as long as the necessary procedure is followed.

Nevertheless, for drugs in Schedule IV (cannabis, heroin), Article 2.5.a states that:

A Party shall adopt any special measures of control which in its opinion are necessary having regard to the particularly dangerous properties of a drug so included

The medical use of heroin and its controlled supply to addicts, while not expressly forbidden by the Convention, remains a controversial issue within the EU.

About the EMCDDA

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is the reference point on drugs and drug addiction information in Europe. Inaugurated in Lisbon in 1995, it is one of the EU's decentralised agencies. Read more >>

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Page last updated: Wednesday, 27 October 2004