A comment on a question about taxing and legalizing soft drugs explains that the US may have used its political and economic clouts to force other countries to ban narcotics.

I find that hard to believe because most countries, including the US, usually respect each others' sovereignty, unless under unusual circumstances.

However, I also do not know any other reasonable explanation.

Most of the drugs are not harmful enough, at least according to science. There is huge cultural diversity and different interests among states make it hard to imagine not even 5% of countries in the world try legalizing it. Also, there are huge benefits to be gained when taxing instead of criminalizing drugs.

The only reasonable explanation is that we have a world government forcing countries to enforce it.

But why? If the US were that powerful, China would have been a democracy. Did the US coerce other countries into criminalizing drugs? If so, how?

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    Most countries, including US, usually respect others' sovereignty, unless under unusual circumstances. Those unusual circumstances must be quite common …
    – chirlu
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 11:46
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    This is HistorySE turf? But you might want to add some of your own research on this to make it fly. Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 12:36
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    "Respect other countries'sovereignty" is not incompatible with trying to influence them. For example, in the current China-USA trade war both countries try to influence the other, but there have been no sovereignty violations (neither country has invaded the other).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 0:41
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    I see. It seems to me that there is a UN convention on narcotic and many countries signing up
    – user4951
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 9:42
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    @user4951: The question you should be asking is WHY most (I think essentially all) countries agreed to that convention, when for many there were obvious cultural traditions and economic benefits to be had from not signing.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 18:49

3 Answers 3


The US has a Drug Enforcement Agency which is tasked with the following (emphasis is mine):

The mission of the DEA is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States; and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets.

To accomplish that mission, the USA has over 750 DEA employees working in 59 other countries. That report by the Office of the Inspector General also contains the following:

According to a DEA headquarters official, the agency is constantly asked by foreign governments to open offices in other countries. However, the DEA only opens offices in countries that are in some way tied to the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.

Based on that, it seems the US (at least when it comes to the DEA) is mostly concerned with protecting its own interests and other countries are eager to work with them (rather than the US forcing them to cooperate).

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    The DEA is probably not the most unbiased source for whether other countries are eager to work with the DEA. Some countries have kicked the DEA out, though you could of course argue about the reasons for that. Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 17:09
  • @BryanKrause that's fair, but by that logic the USA also isn't an unbiased source when asking the question if the USA pressures or even 'coerces' other countries to adapt a certain narcotics policy. While they aren't unbiased, they are (at least) one side of the story.
    – JJJ
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 17:20
  • But this is not really answering the question: or how does the DEA 'make' other countries' legislation? It's about pressure to adopt a policy (aka "criminalisation") not cooperation in enforcing that policy? Is there an ex-official that now can speak his mind (like Ehrlichman) from Bolirustan that claims "we were told to outlaw the oatmeal spice –– or the corruption-money, or development-aid would stop, or sanctions follow, or they would bribe the other guy from the opposition, and we all know how invader-happy the US can get if you don't outlaw oatmeal spice?" Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 22:55
  • @LangLangC of course this is not conclusive proof that the USA does not coerce in the way phrased in the question, but it is evidence that (at least some) of the cooperation is in cooperation with the other countries and often at the request of the other countries. If there is no coercion going on then you're not going to find a smoking gun, instead, this shows that there is no coercion going on in at least some and possibly most or all cases.
    – JJJ
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 23:04
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    Well, compare my comment below the Q: I have a problem with "does" as well as "coerce". From a historical vantage you can see and prove quite some 'influence', even some certain 'pressures'; but it's difficult to paint that as 'like all the 78 years before, the US alone now puts the barrel on the chest of Bolirustan directly to outlaw their traditional, famous, popular, harmless and widespread oldspice as well' Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 23:14

This is a really difficult hypothesis to test because of the numerous confounders. Just arguing from incentives: once the US criminalizes some drug, it obviously has an incentive to make other countries follow suit, but...

The US efforts will be proportional to how much the criminalized drug comes from abroad. A recent example would be China and fentanyl.

Beijing first agreed to make all variations of fentanyl a controlled substance during trade talks between Trump and Xi in early December on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina.

The primary purpose of the meeting was to avoid further escalations in the raging trade war between Washington and Beijing, which has seen billions of dollars of tariffs placed on US and Chinese goods.

The announcement of a starting date for the new laws comes amid ongoing trade talks between the two countries, which have raised hopes of a potential deal to lift tariffs and ease tensions. Chinese officials declined to link the two issues at Monday's press conference.

If there's substantial opposition inside the US for the criminalization of some drug, e.g. marijuana, then the US will do little to try to impose its views elsewhere, for example in the case of Canada or Uruguay. Even more so if US imports of said drug are negligible in contrast to its domestic production.

Countries such as the United States have historically wielded their political influence and power to encourage full implementation of the drug treaties. However, with Uruguay’s law entering its fifth year since passage, there has not been a concerted U.S. government effort to punish Uruguay bilaterally or in an international arena, suggesting that Uruguay’s reforms will not be stymied because of international pressures. In this regard, Uruguay has taken advantage of felicitous timing, with its law’s passage having come in the midst of a major shift toward cannabis regulation within the United States. After the November 2012 ballot initiatives to legalize cannabis in the states of Colorado and Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration adopted a policy of conditional accommodation of state-level cannabis legalization, contained in Justice Department enforcement guidance known as the “Cole Memo.” This accommodation provided Uruguay a political cushion internationally, just as the Uruguayan parliament was preparing to approve the country’s cannabis reform. In the wake of the Colorado and Washington ballot initiatives, the U.S. federal government was suddenly in an awkward spot. The United States was the key architect and for decades the chief enforcer of the UN drug treaties, including vigorous enforcement of the global prohibition on non-medical uses of cannabis. To oppose Uruguay’s new law or even pressure Uruguay to revise or annul it—as it is easy to imagine previous administrations attempting to do so—would open the United States to charges of hypocrisy.

That should also hint you that there are memetic political culture forces at play worldwide. If some country argues a drug is bad for its citizens, there will be politicians in other countries that will argue the same (either because of scientific data or just because of some "moral standards") regardless of external political pressure. But it's really hard to disentangle coercion from copying. Note that unlike fentanyl, China banned opium all by itself. Also note, that in the EU at least, most NPS (new psychoactive substances) banning laws have resorted to explicit harms-related criteria for their bans, since coming up with an exhaustive list of drugs turned out to be on the losing side of the battle:

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But at least some of these countries also have an agency entrusted with drawing up a list based on those principles (as a practical shortcut):

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The US also has had for quite a while a Federal Analogue Act. But there's a lot less worldwide harmonization in this area (NPS), list-wise, than on the (fewer) drugs explicitly listed by the UN conventions. The Wikipedia article on the UN Single Convention has a good historical background how countries were divided according to their incentives during the negotiations. The US was among the group of countries

Having no cultural affinity for organic drug use and being faced with the effects that drug abuse was having on their citizens, they advocated very stringent controls on the production of organic raw materials and on illicit trafficking. As the principal manufacturers of synthetic psychotropics, and backed by a determined industry lobby, they forcefully opposed undue restrictions on medical research or the production and distribution of manufactured drugs. They favored strong supranational control bodies as long as they continued to exercise de facto control over such bodies. According to W.B. McAllister's Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century, their strategy was essentially to "shift as much of the regulatory burden as possible to the raw-material-producing states while retaining as much of their own freedom as possible."

In contrast, just 10 years later:

The conference convened on 11 January 1971. Nations split into two rival factions, based on their interests. According to a Senate of Canada report, "One group included mostly developed nations with powerful pharmaceutical industries and active psychotropics markets . . . The other group consisted of developing states...with few psychotropic manufacturing facilities".[6] The organic drugmaking states that had suffered economically from the Single Convention's restrictions on cannabis, coca, and opium, fought for tough regulations on synthetic drugs. The synthetic drug-producing states opposed those restrictions. Ultimately, the developing states' lobbying power was no match for the powerful pharmaceutical industry's, and the international regulations that emerged at the conference's close on 21 February were considerably weaker than those of the Single Convention.

Some the hardline-ness of the US policy depended, rather predictably, on whether they made the drugs in question or not. Keep in mind that the conventions separate drugs in schedules, with various degrees of control and enforcement.


I don't know that much about the pressure the US exerted to force other countries to adhere to their policy on drugs, but I can provide some general information:

There is an idea that parts of Latin America have - in their opinion unnecessarily - turned into a battleground for America's war on drugs - with Mexico and Colombia particularly affected. If these countries legalized the cultivation of the plants that are grown to produce drugs as well as their export, all problems would disappear: Planting coca would become as normal as growing potatoes, there would no longer be any drug cartels fighting each other or the police (at least not in their country), and much less political corruption. The US war on drugs would have to be fought in the US as this is the place of any illegal activity (and where it belongs - according to this argument).

Would such a drug policy be realistic? Is the current policy only maintained due to persistent foreign coercion? (IMHO, there isn't such an easy escape. I don't think that any country would want such dangerous drugs to be easily available to its citizens.)

One country has openly and successfully resisted American coercion: Bolivia. The Bolivian president Evo Morales had presided a syndicate of indigeneous cocaleros (coca growers). The coca plant is traditionally cultivated in this Andean region. People are chewing on the leaves or drinking a tea of coca. It gives energy or delays at least the appearance of fatigue, and has other positive effects (Many tourists - including myself when there - do the same as it is considered helpful to get accustomed to the high altitude and climate). While Morales had stated that he doesn't want Bolivia to be a supplier of cocaine, he continued to defend the cocaleros' way of life. This has led to some peculiar arrangements for the growth and commercialization of coca. Initially the US have been very hostile to Morales' coca policy, but it seems to work: The feared explosion of Bolivian cocaine production didn't happen, instead the cultivation of coca has even decreased.


  • Regarding the delayed release of the full text, that's very weird to me as it cannot be peer-reviewed (yet a thesis is prerequisite to award a degree). According to Ohio University guidelines, this is normally done to allow the author to publish it in, for example, a journal. I looked for it, but I couldn't find it. As such, I'd be careful citing it just yet as you don't know anything about the research method used, also it's not peer-reviewed (if I'm correct that it's available anywhere).
    – JJJ
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 19:17
  • @JJJ: Yes, it's strange. Maybe the document contains some sensitive data or interview questions. With respect to being peer-reviewed: It looks like a PhD thesis, so it should have been reviewed diligently and defended in front of a scientific committee (whose members are given).
    – user23205
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 7:30

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