International Opium Convention Is Signed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The International Opium Convention was the first official international effort to control the global drug trade and the forerunner of numerous international drug control treaties.

Summary of Event

On February 23, 1912, representatives of thirteen nations met at The Hague, in the Netherlands, to sign the International Opium Convention. The signing marked the creation of the first international treaty specifically concerned with the control and interdiction of illicit narcotics. The treaty originated in the International Opium Commission, which met in Shanghai, China, in 1909, under the leadership of the American delegation at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt. The treaty compelled its members to take active measures to reduce international traffic in narcotics and the legal use of narcotics within their borders. International Opium Convention (1912) Drugs;illegal Opium trade [kw]International Opium Convention Is Signed (Feb. 23, 1912) [kw]Opium Convention Is Signed, International (Feb. 23, 1912) [kw]Convention Is Signed, International Opium (Feb. 23, 1912) International Opium Convention (1912) Drugs;illegal Opium trade [g]Netherlands;Feb. 23, 1912: International Opium Convention Is Signed[03030] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 23, 1912: International Opium Convention Is Signed[03030] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 23, 1912: International Opium Convention Is Signed[03030] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 23, 1912: International Opium Convention Is Signed[03030] [c]Trade and commerce;Feb. 23, 1912: International Opium Convention Is Signed[03030] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 23, 1912: International Opium Convention Is Signed[03030] Brent, Charles Henry Wright, Hamilton Kemp Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;International Opium Commission

During the nineteenth century, substance abuse emerged as an issue of global concern. Opium, which originated in Central Asia, was imported into Europe beginning in the sixteenth century. As the first effective treatment for pain available to Europeans and a valuable means of controlling diarrhea, opium was a beneficial commodity, but the euphoric effect of the drug and its high potential for dependency led to widespread abuse. Europeans imported opium primarily from the Ottoman Empire and India, and they had begun shipping large amounts of the drug to China when trade routes to the Far East opened. This practice continued after the Chinese imperial government banned imported opium in 1800, and Chinese attempts to enforce this ban led to a trade dispute that escalated into armed conflict during the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century. The United States was a major supplier of opium to China prior to the Opium Wars, but at the end of the nineteenth century, as imperialistic competition among major world powers deepened American involvement in the affairs of East Asia, the U.S. government seized control of opium trafficking in an attempt to assert the status of the United States as an emerging world power.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, amid increasing rates of opium addiction and calls from progressive reformers for government action, Roosevelt assigned a prominent role to narcotics interdiction in his activist foreign policy toward South America and East Asia. During his presidency and that of his successor, William Howard Taft (1909-1913), the U.S. government sought to tighten control on the Asian opium trade by conducting naval drug raids on the high seas. The United States also attempted to abolish the legal opium trade in the Philippines, then a U.S. territory, in response to pressure from Protestant missionaries there. In the early 1900’s, a committee led by Charles Henry Brent, the Episcopal bishop of Manila, recommended a gradual prohibition of opium in the territory, which prompted the U.S. Congress to pass legislation criminalizing the sale of opium in the Philippines.

Following the success of his campaign against opium in the Philippines, Brent petitioned Roosevelt to call an international conference on the opium trade in China. Roosevelt, seeking to solidify American relations with the Chinese government, agreed to schedule a conference in Shanghai in February, 1909. The American delegation, which included Brent, missionary doctor Charles Tenney, and noted antinarcotics crusader Dr. Hamilton Kemp Wright, took the lead during the conference, which also included China, Great Britain, and several other nations with interests in East Asia. The Shanghai Conference, as it is often called, fell short of American goals to organize a multinational convention with the authority to draft an antiopium treaty, but it succeeded in uniting participating nations behind efforts to combat the international trade in illicit narcotics. Following the example of the United States, which passed the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 Opium Exclusion Act (1909) prohibiting the importation of nonmedicinal opium, many nations participating in the conference adopted their own domestic antidrug legislation.

Meanwhile, the push for an international narcotics-control treaty escalated. The campaign was led by the U.S. State Department and ongoing pressure from Brent and Wright, who had gained recognition as the nation’s foremost antidrug crusaders. Another conference was scheduled for late 1911 at The Hague, which by the early twentieth century had become a favored locale for the conduct of international affairs. All nations participating in the Shanghai Conference of 1909 sent delegations to the convention. Brent and Wright, who once again headed the American delegation, presented the antiopium measures recently enacted in the Philippines to the convention as evidence of the success of narcotics criminalization, ignoring the fact that opium use there had increased since the measures were implemented. The delegates, under Brent’s leadership, drafted a treaty requiring that signatories use “their best endeavors” to control the manufacture and distribution of opium, cocaine, and their derivatives. The American delegation had pressed to include cannabis among the substances subject to the treaty, but the majority of the participants did not consider its use sufficiently problematic to warrant prohibition.

In addition to the United States, thirteen other nations signed the International Opium Convention on February 23, 1912. They included several European colonial powers—France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Russia—Japan, and China. Five nations—the United States, China, the Netherlands, Honduras, and Norway—began implementing the terms of the convention in 1915. World War I (1914-1918) prevented most European nations from following suit, but the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war, incorporated the terms of the convention and began their worldwide enforcement. Initial convention results were mixed; signatories to the treaty enacted policy and legislation geared toward controlling the foreign and domestic narcotics trade, but many of these measures were ineffective or poorly enforced. The treaty contained numerous legal loopholes that permitted participating nations to ignore or selectively interdict traffic in narcotics.


The International Opium Convention set several important precedents. It implemented an international drug-control treaty, established the regulation of global narcotics traffic as a significant component of international relations, and set the groundwork for a U.S.-led campaign against the global drug trade that escalated into an international “war on drugs” by century’s end. The political maneuvering behind the convention’s planning and the dominant role of Western colonial powers in its formation suggest that the push toward international drug control was based primarily on economic and political factors rather than on concern for public health and welfare. Efforts by the signatories to curry favor with the Chinese government and increase their involvement in the affairs of East Asia took precedence over the control of the global illicit drug trade.

In addition, the narrow focus of the treaty upon the interdiction of opium, primarily in its smokable form, encouraged increased traffic in opium derivatives such as morphine and heroin for which little or no regulation existed. Following the lead of the United States, which passed the Harrison Act in 1914 to regulate opiates and cocaine, participating nations enacted policies to close these loopholes. Still, these measures had little effect on international narcotics trafficking.

Subsequent international treaties attempted, with limited success, to enhance the effectiveness of narcotics control. A revised International Opium Convention signed in 1925 added a provision requiring individual nations to regulate the import and export of cannabis products and assigned enforcement responsibility to the League of Nations, which proved ineffective in securing the cooperation of member nations and folded as World War II broke out in Europe. Its successor, the United Nations, assumed responsibility for control of the global drug trade during the postwar era. In 1961, U.N. member nations signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which superseded the International Opium Convention and broadened the scope of international drug interdiction to include various controlled substances and drug-related crimes such as money laundering. International Opium Convention (1912) Drugs;illegal Opium trade

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“The Beginnings of International Drug Control.” U.N. Chronicle 35, no. 2 (Summer, 1998): 8. Outlines the diplomatic concerns that shaped the drafting of the International Opium Conference of 1912 and other efforts to control the global narcotics trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erlen, Jonathon, and Joseph F. Spillane, eds. Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice. Binghamton, N.Y.: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 2004. Examines the role of the International Opium Convention as a precedent for global drug control measures of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McAllister, William B. Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century: An International History. New York: Routledge, 1999. Discusses the diplomatic aspects of the International Opium Conference of 1912 and subsequent international drug control treaties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, William O. Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Focuses on the role of narcotics control in American foreign policy toward Asian nations.

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