The 100 Years' Worldwide War on Drugs

January 23, 2012 - Today marks the 100th birthday of the first international drug control treaty, the International Opium Convention, signed at the Hague in 1912. The treaty called on signatories to prohibit the non-medical sales of opium, morphine, cocaine and to strictly regulate their distribution and production. The Hague convention would lay the foundation for an edifice of further treaties committing the United States and rest of the world to a century of prohibition, drug wars, and concomitant crime and violence.

The driving force behind the treaty was the U.S. government, then as now a worldwide leader in drug prohibition. The U.S. initiative was a product of Progressive Era enthusiasm for government regulation and the rising temperance movement, which would culminate in the disaster of alcohol prohibition. It started when Protestant missionaries in Asia petitioned President Theodore Roosevelt to suppress the opium traffic. The State Department was supportive, seeing this as a useful way of currying favor with China, which was bridling at the unfettered British opium trade from India. Roosevelt agreed, and appointed the brash and energetic Dr. Hamilton Wright (pictured left) to serve as the nation's first drug czar in the State Department. Under Wright's leadership, the U.S. called an international conference in Shanghai, where it prevailed upon the British to join a resolution to suppress the smoking opium trade. A follow-up conference was called in the Hague to pursue a binding international treaty.

The US pursued an aggressive prohibitionist policy at the Hague against the more moderate, cautious views of the British and other nations. The US delegation was led by Wright, a vociferous and overbearing advocate of tough prohibitionist controls. He was joined by the more suave and diplomatic Bishop Charles Henry Brent (pictured right), who had led the crusade against opium smoking in Asia. Brent was disappointed that other nations failed to accept the then-novel, American notion that non-medical use of opium was inherently immoral. The third member of the U.S. delegation was Henry J. Finger of the California Board of Pharmacy, who had engineered that state's pioneering anti-drug campaign, outlawing and busting opium dens and dope-dealing pharmacists. Finger advanced the novel proposal that cannabis be included in the treaty, an idea that won Wright's support but failed to evoke interest from other nations at that time.

The Hague Convention, signed by the U.S., China, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Persia, Russia, Siam and the Netherlands, committed its signatories to "use their best endeavours to control, or to cause to be controlled, all persons manufacturing, importing, selling, distributing, and exporting morphine, cocaine, and their respective salts, as well as the buildings in which these persons carry such an industry or trade."

The treaty provided the justification for Congress to pass the first comprehensive federal narcotics control law, the Harrison Act, in 1914. The act set the U.S. on a fateful prohibitionist path of ever-expanding federal laws, controls and regulations aimed at restricting Americans' use and freedom of choice in drugs.

In the meantime, the Hague Convention was followed by a succession of further treaties, eventually culminating in the Single Convention Treaty (1961), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971), and the Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988), which commits the world's nations to criminalize personal possession of cannabis and other illegal drugs.

The baleful consequences of the Hague Treaty and the subsequent world-wide war on drugs remain with us today: prohibition-fueled drug crime and violence, half a million Americans in prison for offenses that were unknown a century ago; murderous drug wars in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico that have left thousands dead, and pervasive denial of personal freedom and civil liberties. Despite this, the rate of drug abuse is no lower than a century ago when drugs were still legal. Judged by the evidence, the time is overdue to end the Hundred Years War on Drugs.

- Dale Gieringer
Drug Policy Forum of California