No internationally recognized definition for an “international drug policy” can be found. However, it is a broad umbrella term which refers to various drug treaties, such as the Single Convention of 1961 and the development of international drug law through international institutions such as the United Nations – which expects member states to implement any advances in law into domestic legislation. Therefore in order to evaluate U.S. influence in the shaping of international drugs policy, it is necessary first to analyse drug treaties since initial attempts were made to deal with the problem of illicit drugs on a multi-lateral international scale.

Next, the extent to which the U.S. has shaped international law at a supranational level is investigated in the context of how the U.S. has sought to coerce sovereign states into implementing its own domestic legislation in an attempt to internationalize and export its own drug agenda. Finally, recent developments in U.S. drug policy will be reviewed in relation to their influence on specific countries such as Columbia to illustrate exactly how powerful, or otherwise they are.

Wittkopt et al assert that after World War II the US ‘actively embraced global responsibilities’, assuming an assertive foreign policy that constructed a world compatible with the American vision. Consequently they posit that the international political system has been a ‘product of the policies and programs the United States engineered’ thus adopting the view that the US has internationalized issues such as illicit drugs and terrorism (Wittkopt et al, 2003, pg195).

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Undoubtedly the U.S. has had a profound impact on shaping international drug policy ever since the 1909 Shanghai International Opium Convention which ‘provided the legal basis for the beginning of the homogenization of domestic drug control policies on a world-wide scale’ (Begley -Taylor, 1999, pg2). Before this multinational meeting there was no global pattern regarding common rules, norms or laws on drugs, in which states could conform to. Although the U.S. has always exerted considerable influence on international drug laws and conventions, the end of the Cold War saw an increase in U.S. concern for global drug problem. It has emerged as one of the most salient foreign policy issues with American taxpayers having spent $23 billion since 1981 (Falco, 1996, pg124).

American drug ideology is perceived to be driven by altruism, Stanley Hoffman called it ‘unconscious paternalism’ (Begley-Taylor, 1999, pg 8). It is a highly moral policy meaning that a zero-tolerance stance has been assumed since day one. It has used its size and economic wealth to export its values and ideology to other nations for decades, and in essence has forced other nations to adopt their policies on important international issues such as drugs. Thus Begley-Taylor suggested that ‘since the beginning of the twentieth century the United States has sought, with considerable success to internationalize the principals behind its national response to curb illicit drug use (Begley-Taylor, 1999, pg 1). U.S. hegemony has led to significant pressure on state sovereignty, shaping domestic drug policy and resulting in implementation of conventions that follow the USA’s moral code on drugs regardless of socio-cultural issues that would otherwise influence legislation.

Many regard the talk of the winning a war on illicit drugs as utopian rhetoric. The issue of drugs is high on every nation’s political agenda with the increased prevalence of the losing battle resonating on a global scale. With the discerning reality that the estimated annual drug industry generates worldwide in excess of $300 billion a year in gross total receipts, numerous theorists find the contention of a complete u-turn impossible to conceptualize and thus are almost unanimous in dismissing it as an unrealistic goal (Perl, 1990, pg 126).

Therefore the inherent question is whether the current international drug policy based around the prohibition ideology, lead by the United States with stark activism, is in fact counter-productive and redundant. Many assert the merits of a non-prohibitionist policy. Coomber defines a non-prohibitionist policy as ‘referring to any aspects of policy other than those concerned with banning drugs and drug use’ (Coomber, 2000, pg 233)

This paper evaluates America’s ideology on drugs and the effect its ideology has had in shaping international drug policy. The thesis of this paper is that the USA has played a profound and important role on the evolution of drug policy with the supranational nature it has assumed since the end of World War 2. Thus this essay will take a neo-realist perspective asserting that the role of hegemonic actors, such as the U.S. will always be influential in leading inter-state relations; wielding power in such a way to further their own domestic policy crusades whilst exporting ideology consciously or unconsciously (Begley- Taylor, 1999, pg 5).

Prior to evaluating the United States quest in shaping international drug policy it is necessary to outline America’s ideology on drugs for purposes of clarity. America’s attitudes toward drugs have always been inextricably linked with morality. Drugs are perceived to be, ‘foreign threats to America’s social fabric, undermining traditional values and political stability’. America’s domestic drug problem has consistently been associated with immigrant and minority groups: opium with Chinese labourers in the west; cocaine with blacks; and marijuana with Mexican immigrants in the Southwest (Falco, 1996, pg 120).

Consequently negative social, economic and political consequences are associated with drugs and illicit trafficking in drugs of abuse and addiction is perceived as a moral and foreign policy issue. Thus “drugs” are viewed as ‘bad’ and the solution that the U.S. has adopted since the early 1900’s is a policy of ‘prohibition’ which refers to banning drugs and their use in search of a complete eradication of the problem. Enforcement measures have included criminalization of drug production, trafficking and use, as well as drug eradication and interdiction and financial interdiction campaigns. (Friman, 1996, pg 4).

In order to evaluate the role of the USA in shaping international drug policy next it is necessary to evaluate chronologically the evolution of international drug policy.

Only by the end of the 19th century did trade in illicit drugs first become illegal. Surprisingly before the end of the century narcotic products had been a legitimate business. It is clear to see that the United States was a leading force in narcotic control pre-World War One. The U.S. in conjunction with Britain and China, were the first nations to attempt to deal with the problem of drugs. The Opium Commission was appointed and met in Shanghai in 1909 led by the US who was driven partly by their dislike for the opium trade but more significantly due to the growing domestic problem opium was causing (Waddell, 1970, pg 311). This conference was formally consolidated at The Hague in 1912 where the first international narcotics convention was actually signed enumerating a number of principles such as controlling by law the production and distribution of raw opium.

The next major milestone in international drug policy saw the United Nations assuming the role that the League of Nations had fulfilled previously. In 1946 the UN established the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the Division on Narcotic Drugs moved immediately to deal with the increasing problem of synthetic narcotic drugs. Begley and Taylor assert that the U.S. ‘rise to hegemony and its associated pre-eminent position within the newly formed United Nations in the mid- 1940’s was vital to the creation of current U.S. dominated international drug control’ (Begley- Taylor, 1999, pg 6). Throughout the early stages of international drug control it is clear to see the U.S. assumed a commanding position calling the shots. Ultimately nations were obliged to comply with an internationalized policy, encroaching on sovereignty disregarding socio-cultural definitions associated with the issue.

The Single Convention of 1961 established administrative structures for the first time and sort to justify prohibition rhetoric. It has an important place in history of international drug control and the U.S. crusade with the convention retaining U.S. prohibitionist characteristics. In collaboration with the UN, the United States depicted the legislation as an important advancement for the protection of humankind against the ‘evils’ of non-scientific and non-scientific drug use. Undoubtedly it put pressure upon nations to comply with the legislative ideals of the convention. Following the opium debates of the first half of the century it was clearly in compliance with the North American agenda albeit illicit drugs having ‘not posed any problems in industrial or developing societies when the Single Convention was drafted in the second half of the 1950s (Albrecht, 2001, pg 51).

The next convention was the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances which aimed to further strengthen the 1961 Convention; ‘introduced controls over a number of synthetic drugs according to their abuse potential on the one hand and their therapeutic value on the other’ ( Albrecht notes that ‘American political framework ensured that the U.S. perception of legit drug use and effective ways to control such use remained dominant’ (Albrecht, 2001, pg156). In the same year a UN body was created to bolster the international fight against drugs: The United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse and Control (UNFDAC) established bodies to uphold conventions. Unsurprisingly this was proposed and funded by the USA and was administered by the Secretary-General.

This highlights U.S. pressure, influence and desire for an internationalized drug policy legitimized through United Nations. It is not a coincident that the US yields an immense amount of power within the UN due to the fact that it is the largest contributor to the institution. An example of this is that it contributed a modest $2 million to implement 1972 Protocol amending the Single Convention. This aimed at strengthening provisions of the 1961 Single Convention and increased efforts to prevent the illicit production of, traffic in and use of drugs; so perpetuating the US style of drug war. If countries do not accept UN conventions they are viewed as an enemy of the U.S. and the fight against illicit drugs.

The 1961 and the 1971 conventions had been dominated by administrative and health related considerations. Despite work to strengthen international framework the fact that some states were still not party to these treaties remained a concern to the U.S. Therefore in 1987 the UN International Convention on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking was held which focused on, ‘demand reduction, supply control and trade suppression’. Begley-Taylor asserts that the main aim of the conference was the promotion and strict implementation of treaty obligations (Begley-Taylor, 1999, pg 167). This accentuates the continued persistence of the US in urging nations to continue in the pursuit of a prohibition-based policy regardless of alternative strategies which may have been more suited to other countries’ domestic problems.

The 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, as the title suggests, remained concerned with the supply-side of the drugs equation meanwhile putting a new found emphasis on criminal law and co-operation on criminal matters. Albrecht asserts that the main purpose of the convention was aimed at ‘strengthening criminal law in the field of drug law on particular strategies, among them, fortitude policies, money laundering controls, judicial aid extradition, police co-operation and the control of precursors of drugs.’ (Albrecht, 2001, pg 53). The transnational nature of the convention emphasised the unquestionable desire of the United States to reach drug law uniformity among UN member states – and thus to wage war on a united front.

The conventions’ contents fitted very comfortably into the current state of the US criminal justice system, in alignment with the federal and state legislature. According to eminent political scientist Ethan Needleman, ‘never before have US foreign policy and the US criminal justice system been so deeply entangled (Green, 1998, pg 31). Many countries had different laws and policies, distinct from those in North America. Consequently, feeling the pressure, many agreed to participate in international control efforts even though they had no intention of actually implementing them (Friman, 1996, pg 2). A case in point is the Netherlands which has a history of a liberal drug policy. In 1988 the Dutch approach distinguished between soft and hard drugs, keeping cannabis users out of the criminal justice system much to the annoyance of their US counterparts (Albrecht, 2001, pg 55).

In 1990 a special session of the General assembly was held which adopted a Global Programme of Action against Illicit Drugs, attempting to re-affirm the principles of previous conventions, consolidating the prohibition reasoning. Supply-side policies were still dominant which led many to criticize the US, under the guise of the UN, for being myopic with regard to the war on drugs.

Disregarding any experimental policies and giving little consideration to admissions to expand on efforts to focus on treatment for and rehabilitation of drug users. As Richard Hartnoll notes, the framework set since 1961 considers that ‘the drugs problem should be tackled primarily through the suppression of supply and through the prohibition of possession or non-medical and non-scientific purposes (Hartnoll, 1989, pg 39). In Begely-Taylor’s opinion, this policy failed drastically not only internationally but domestically for the US , with the pursuit of prohibition over the past 80 years having little effect on reducing drug use with drugs still being common in all sectors of American society (Begley-Taylor, 1999, pg 170).

The last major drug convention held in 1998 was the ‘Twentieth Session of the General Assembly’ devoted to countering the World Drug problem. They attempted to devise a comprehensive global strategy for the reduction of both illicit supply and demand. Unfortunately, what ensued was a ‘disappointing perpetuation of unsuccessful, unrealistic strategies’. The meeting merely reiterated the unrealistic pledge of a drug free world by 2008. A mid-way review held in 2003 illustrated the disconcerting reality that virtually all aspects of the ‘comprehensive’ global strategy were failing disastrously. (

The last part of this paper will evaluate contemporary strategies in U.S. drug policy, reviewed in relation to their influence on specific countries such as Columbia to illustrate their significant influence.

America has a number of strategies to fulfil the goals of their war on drugs. The United States main strategies for consumption limitation predominantly reside in supply-side policies which are heavily criticised for being unfair on the nations which have to adopt these approaches. A significant part of their international strategy is to give substantial economic aid to major cocaine- producing countries in order to strengthen nations’ economic and political conditions thereby reducing the influence of the cocaine industry on their society. Additionally, compensation is provided for the economic loss of destroying an important export crop and industry.

However, many question the effectiveness of this initiative as it has had an insignificant effect on reducing rigidity of economic deterioration in countries such as Peru and Bolivia. Moreover, Perl asserts that ‘oft-cited conservative estimates that the drug-trade brings in at least $600 million per year in foreign exchange respectively for countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Columbia’. Thus one could contend that the US, conditioned by its importance it places on drugs as a foreign policy issue, has incorrectly expected other nations to put comparable emphasis on the problem. (Perl, 1990, pg 128) Additionally, a myriad of ‘domino effect’ problems result from such schemes such as the reality that viable alternatives crops just do not exist and subsidy programs lack funding.

Income replacement cannot be expected to succeed alone and other tactics are also being pursued. Military aid and training is offered to Andean nations in order to increase levels of military involvement in counter-narcotics operations. Additionally, continued proposals have been made to develop intelligence through ‘improved command, control and communication for anti-drug operations’ (Perl, 1990, pg 124). However, as Falco notes; the fundamental problem is that supply-side policies are fatally flawed for a plethora of reasons not least of which is that drug crops are the basis of many poor economies. He realistically contends that the only lasting solution lies in demand-side policies (Falco, 1996, pg 126/8).

From the evidence above one can see that the U.S. wields immense power on the international stage and has been extremely influential in shaping twentieth century drug policy. Consequently the U.S. is able to put immense pressure on drug producer countries ‘to implement indigenous policies limiting drug supply at source, as a key element in their own strategies for dealing with illicit drug consumption’ (Whynes, 1997, pg 475).

Many countries such as those in South America rely on U.S. for economic assistance, thus are left vulnerable to coercion. The U.S. takes it upon itself to enforce international law through methods of coercion and in 1983, ‘Congress passed the Gilman Hawkins Amendment which suspended all economic aid to countries which did not fully co-operate with U.S. drug control policy ‘(del Olmo, 1996, pg36).

Being held accountable to the U.S. drastically limits the ability of countries such as Bolivia to formulate dynamic and pragmatic responses to their own national drug war. Gerber and Jensen posit that ‘the internationalisation of U.S. law enforcement during the twentieth century has shaped the evolution of criminal justice systems in dozens of other countries’. Therefore not only does the U.S. have strong leverage in the process of shaping international drug law but is equally as powerful in the process implementation and pursues its agenda of a prohibitive-based drug control system in an ‘aggressive and penetrative manner’ (Gerber and Jensen, 2001, pg 12).

In conclusion one must contend that the USA has played a central role in the creation of the contemporary global prohibition regime. Ever since attempts were first made to deal with the problem of illicit drugs on a multi-lateral international level, the U.S. has exercised its hegemonic powers, thus, ‘U.S. drug policy has become internationalized as a result of U.S. pressure subtle and blatant alike’ (Gerber and Jensen, 2001, pg 12). The pivotal position and powerful influence the USA wields in the United Nations has been a decisive factor in enabling them to perpetuate their style of drug war. This is achieved through the main instruments of drug control, such as conventions, international law, monitoring and sponsoring, developed over the last century.

The U.S. contention that its control efforts are morally correct and just is legitimized by the United Nations and consequently, ‘the UN plays a major role in sustaining and implement the global drug prohibition regime’ (Begley-Taylor, 1999, pg 6). Additionally U.S. overseas anti-drug actions in Latin America is a clear example of its desire to implement its supply-side policies alongside its willingness to coerce nations into adopting its drug control policy, disregarding differences in socio-cultural conditions. The consequence of the USA assuming such a commanding role has been tensions and contradictions within the policy-making community at all levels. The USA’s populist rhetoric of having a clear solution to the drugs problem has led to essentially the ‘ones size fits all’ prohibition policy. The over emphasised beliefs of a few powerful states has not fairly reflected global opinion on how to best address the growing problem of illicit drugs.

Due to the transnational nature of the production and consumption of illicit drugs a global response is required; inevitably a powerful nation such as the USA is going to take a lead in such endeavours. However the continuing failure of the prohibitionist ideology and persistence of bureaucratic myopia has led many countries to abandon policies heavily influenced by the U.S. in favour of harm reduction alternatives. The European Union has the potential to be at the forefront in the development of fresh and more realistic strategies in attempt to work towards reducing the effects of drugs resonating throughout society, losing the U.S. deterrence paradigm along the way. Is this possible? Only time will tell.


* Albrecht, H-J. ‘The International System of Drug Control- Developments and Trends’ in J. Gerber and E. L. Jensen (2001), Drug War American Style, Garland Publishing, New York.

* Begley-Taylor, D.R. (1999) ‘The United States and International Drug Control: 1909-1997’, Pinter, London.

* Coomber, R. (2000) ‘The Control of Drugs and Drug Users – Reason or Reaction?’, Harwood Academic Publishers, Malaysia.

* Falco, M. ‘U.S. Drug Policy: Addicted to Failure’, Foreign Policy, No.102 (Spring, 1996), pp.120-133.

* Friman, R. (1996) ‘Narco-Diplomacy- Exporting the U.S. War on Drugs’, Cornell Uni. Press. New York.

* Gerber and Jensen, ‘Internationalization of U.S. Policy on Illicit Drug Control’ In: J. Gerber and E. L. Jensen (eds), Op. Cit

* Green, P. (1998) ‘The Scapegoat Strategy’, Waterside Press, Winchester.

* Hartnoll, R., ‘The International Context’ in MacGregor, S. (ed) ‘Drugs and British Society – Responses to a Social problem in the 1980’s’ (1989) Routledge, London, pp 39.

* Perl, R, F. ‘United States International Drug Policy: Recent Developments and Issues’, Journal of Inter-American Studies and World affairs, Vol.32, No.4 (winter,1990), pp 123-135.

* Waddell, I, G. International Narcotics Control, International Journal of International Law. Vol. 64, No.2. (1970), PP. 310-323.

* Whynes, D. ‘Illicit Drug Production and Supply-side Drugs Policy in Asia and South America’

* Wittkoff et al, (2003) ‘American Foreign Policy’. Thompson Learning, Belmont.




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