This Convention provides comprehensive measures against drug trafficking, including provisions against money laundering and the diversion of precursor chemicals. It provides for international cooperation through, for example, extradition of drug traffickers, controlled deliveries and transfer of proceedings.
The Convention represents an escalation in the War on Drugs. The Preamble notes that previous enforcement efforts have not stopped drug use, warning of "steadily increasing inroads into various social groups made by illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances." It cautions that the drug trade and related activities "undermine the legitimate economies and threaten the stability, security and sovereignty of States." The sense of urgency is underscored by the image of innocent boys and girls being exploited:
Children are used in many parts of the world as an illicit drug consumers market and for purposes of illicit production, distribution and trade in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, which entails a danger of incalculable gravity.
Much of the treaty is devoted to fighting organized crime by mandating cooperation in tracing and seizing drug-related assets. Article 5 of the Convention requires its parties to confiscate proceeds from drug offenses. It also requires parties to empower its courts or other competent authorities to order that bank, financial, or commercial records be made available or seized. The Convention further states that a party may not decline to act on this provision on the ground of bank secrecy.
Article 6 of the Convention provides a legal basis for extradition in drug-related cases among countries having no other extradition treaties. In addition, the Convention requires the parties to provide mutual legal assistance to one another upon request, for purposes of searches, seizures, service of judicial documents, and so on.
In addition, Article 12 of the Convention establishes two categories of controlled illicit drug precursor substances, Table I and Table II. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs has power to decide whether to control a precursor substance, and which Table to place it in. The assessment of the International Narcotics Control Board is binding on the Commission, however, as to scientific matters. A two-thirds vote is required to add a substance to a Table.
Article 12 protects the interests of pharmaceutical and chemical companies by requiring the Board to take into account the "extent, importance and diversity of the licit use of the substance, and the possibility and ease of using alternate substances both for licit purposes and for the illicit manufacture of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances."
Control of amphetamine-type stimulant precursors has become a major UN priority.
Article 3 of the Convention may require nations to ban possession of drugs for personal use:
Subject to its constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system, each Party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as a criminal offence under its domestic law, when committed intentionally, the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Convention, the 1961 Convention as amended or the 1971 Convention.
Previous drug control treaties had targeted drug manufacturers and traffickers, rather than users. The Mechanics and Dynamics of the UN System for International Drug Control by David R. Bewley-Taylor, PhD and Professor Cindy Fazey, PhD, explains that "[t]he 1988 Convention was an attempt to reach a political balance between consumer and producer countries. Consequently, it was not only the duty of producing countries (e.g. the developing countries of Asia and South America) to suppress illicit supply, but also the duty of consumer countries (e.g. the industrialized countries of Europe and North America) to suppress the demand for drugs."
However, it is unclear whether this provision actually does mandate prohibition of drug possession for personal use, due to the caveat that such possession need only be prohibited if it is "contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Convention, the 1961 Convention as amended or the 1971 Convention." The American National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse found that the provisions of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs against possession apply only to possession related to illicit trafficking, while the Canadian Le Dain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs found otherwise.