The international drug control system represents an area of common, albeit contested, governance within the multilateral system. First absorbed under the League of Nations and then transferred wholesale to the new United Nations Organization in 1946, it represents one clear area of multilateral, national and local convergence from at least 1909 through to the present era.

Around 2012, something unforeseen happened. In a system long-viewed as the hegemonic product of the US ‘war on drugs’ and characterised by the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ model of UN decision making, the system began to visibly fragment. Although changes beneath the superstructure of the global ‘regime’ had been apparent and well documented, for the first time both policymakers and policy takers within the system began to allow debates, and potentially monumental policy changes, which shook its core foundations and sense of uniformity and coherence.

This paper seeks to explain this process of fragmentation and suggest a changed analytical framework for discussing trends and outcomes within the drug control system and its interaction with other areas of global governance. It adopts the terminology of ‘regime complex’ from the field of environmental studies and utilises it to demonstrate both the changed structural underpinnings of the system, the likelihood of survival and broad continuity in many areas, alongside the ambivalent possibilities this brings in terms of policy innovation and human rights risk.