Ketamine under international law

Psychoactive substances or ‘drugs’, often associated with recreational use, are in fact commonly used for a variety of medicinal purposes. It is even less understood that the supply of more than 100 of these drugs is regulated by a complex system of international drug control underpinned by three United Nations treaties with near universal ratification. This post explores the relationship of drugs and international law, specifically international drug control law and international human rights law, using the topical example of placing ketamine under international control.

International drug control law

The legal framework of international drug control is shaped by three treaties: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (as amended by the 1972 Protocol), the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic or Psychotropic Substances. Scheduling is the process established by the treaties to bring certain psychoactive substances under a graded scale of international control. Scheduling a substance creates positive obligations for States to implement regulatory processes that meet or exceed requirements established by the treaties. In some overburdened health systems, this can lead to over-restrictive controls that inhibit medical access to essential drugs, well documented in the case of opioid analgesics.

Uses of ketamine

Ketamine’s unique properties make it one of the most important and widely used drugs in emergency and surgical medicine globally.   Where most anaesthetics require electricity for ventilators and gas masks, ketamine—an injectable anaesthetic—can be safely administered in settings without regular access to power, for example, war zones or impoverished rural areas. The analgesic properties of ketamine make its use during emergency surgery, such as for caesarean sections, indispensible for improving mortality outcomes in less-developed countries throughout the Global South. It is because of these properties that the World Health Organisation (WHO) placed ketamine on its list of essential medicines for both children and adults.

Outside of clinical settings, ketamine is used recreationally, although such use is mainly in more developed countries. China, in particular, views the illicit production of ketamine as an “increasingly serious” domestic issue and has repeatedly requested the substance be subject to international control. It is with this direction from China, that ketamine has made its foray onto the international legal stage.

Scheduling ketamine under international law

Established in 1946 by ECOSOC, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) serves as the principal policy-making body of the UN drug control system and under the three drug control treaties, it is mandated to oversee the scheduling system. China is currently one of 53 members of the CND, and is authorised under the treaties—in the case of ketamine, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances—to introduce substances of concern for scheduling consideration.  Procedurally, article 2 of the 1971 Convention requires the CND to submit scheduling recommendations to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for an evidence-based review to determine if the substance meets the criteria elaborated under article 2(4) to require scheduling (or not) and its degree of restriction under the graded scheduling system. Under article 2(5) of the 1971 Convention, the WHO’s recommendations are “determinative” when it comes to the “medical and scientific” basis for adding substances to a schedule.

This is not the first time China has requested ketamine be scheduled. The WHO’s review this year and each time before (see here and here) determined the public health risks associated with recreational use did not merit any measure of scheduling. The conclusive nature of this recommendation under the 1971 Convention has been subject to much interpretative debate. The current prevailing interpretation has placed the status of such a recommendation within broader considerations such as “economic, social, legal, [and] administrative” factors listed in article 2(5).

What this interpretation signals is that despite WHO’s determinative assessment that ketamine does not meet the criteria for scheduling under article 2(4), its scheduling may now be subject to a purely political process (a two-thirds vote by the CND would place ketamine under international control).

The control of ketamine and international human rights law

The impact the control of ketamine has upon human rights is a critical consideration. While human rights are not explicitly mentioned in the 1971 Convention, they are contained within the meaning of “legal” considerations as written in article 2(5), which States must take into account when deciding to add a substance to a schedule.

As mentioned previously, scheduling a substance creates regulatory barriers that have made essential medicines completely inaccessible for those most in need. These barriers result in on-going violations of human rights—most notably the right to health. The normative scope and content of the right is contained within article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and imposes upon States core obligations to be given immediate effect. General Comment 14 on the right to health elaborates further that amongst this minimum core is the obligation to provide medicines as indicated on the WHO’s essential medicines list. As such, ensuring ketamine is available, accessible, acceptable, and of sufficient quality forms part of a State’s core right to health obligations.

Should ketamine fall under the scope of international control, any restrictive measures a State subsequently imposes cannot interfere with current levels of access. The imposition of international control requirements would in many States, restrict current levels of access to ketamine and amount to a deliberate retrogressive action in violation of the right to health. This is relevant to any scheduling level under the 1971 Convention. While Schedule 1 imposes the most restrictive control measures, States can apply equally or more restrictive measures for any schedule level under article 23. As such, the same human rights assessment would apply as States with less complex regulatory systems often lump controls into one or two highly restrictive categories—see the example of phenobarbital, a Schedule 4 drug under the 1971 Convention.

As the vote fast approaches, a human rights framework offers States a powerful normative counterweight to the political pressure they face to place ketamine—an essential, life-saving medicine—under unnecessary international control.

Visit the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy for more resources.

Daily updates from the CND can be found here.

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