Sweden’s ‘drug free society’

A brief history of drug policy in Sweden and a personal perspective from a resident Swede

drug policy in sweden

Sweden has had a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drug use for some time, famous for its ‘drug-free society’ mantra. While all policies arise in their cultural contexts, in the wake of so much focus on the Portuguese decriminalisation model, it’s interesting to look at the other end of the scale to gain some understanding of how this approach has impacted use and attitudes in the Scandinavian society.

A bit of background about Sweden’s drug policy

Sweden hasn’t always had such a restrictive stance on drugs. When amphetamines were introduced in the 1930s, many Swedes quickly became regular users. As restrictions were put in place by the government, people found ways around them and use continued to grow. As more drugs emerged, health warnings and tighter control over prescriptions were introduced, which resulted in a decline in amphetamine sales.

In 1965, Sweden experimented with a new project that allowed a small number of doctors to prescribe illicit drugs (mainly amphetamines) to their patients. The project lasted two years, during which time a number of problems emerged. Prescribed drugs were diverted to the black market, patients began supplying their family and friends, and intravenous drug use in the capital rose from 20 to 33 per cent. The experiment was widely deemed a failure.

Since the late 1960s, Sweden has been working to create a drug-free society. Policy stemmed from the belief that individuals susceptible to drug abuse are very difficult to influence, so hard-line legislation was seen as the best way to limit their exposure. While heroin use continued to increase in the 1970s, laws were introduced which set a new standard for the country: the aim should be to eliminate illicit substance abuse entirely, not just to lower it.

What’s the situation now?

Sweden’s ‘zero tolerance’ stance is based on strong law enforcement, normative abstinence and prevention. As other countries have moved to decriminalise drug possession in recent years, Sweden has moved in the other direction, criminalising not only possession, but drug use as well. Penalties have gradually become more severe with time, as use can now also be punished with imprisonment. Police are able to conduct blood or urine tests without consent, and drug users can also be strongly encouraged into care.

Whether this restrictive approach has been effective or not is a hotly contested issue. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has stated that overall drug abuse has declined in Sweden, pointing to its below average prevalence rate (Sweden has the 7th lowest prevalence rate for problem drug use in the EU). However critics argue Sweden’s drug-induced mortality rate is actually more than three times higher than the European average, and the ‘zero-tolerance’ approach is actually increasing the harms.

 

NCPIC recently spoke with someone who grew up in Sweden to see how government drug policy has shaped their views about drug use and addiction.

What is your attitude towards illicit drug use?

I’m strongly against all illegal drugs. This is mainly because of things that happened in my family, the most significant being when my uncle died from a drug overdose.

How do you think your opinion on drugs has been shaped by the Swedish government?

Quite a lot. From really early on you have talks from police about drugs and watch horrible movies about kids dying from using drugs. The education talks and movies really touched me. Generally the police come once a year to talk to students. A lot of our education is infused with the message that drugs are bad. The fact that the government made drugs illegal is also a big reason why I’m so opposed. If it wasn’t illegal I might have a different view on it.

When does drug education begin and what does it look like?

Drug education begins in secondary school, it consists of talks by police and teachers. It starts when you’re a teenager because that’s the time you are seen to be most vulnerable.

How much involvement do you think governments should have in drug control?

I think it’s good the way it is in Sweden. I think the education at an early age has a huge impact too, without that part the policy wouldn’t be as effective. I remember being really scared by some of the movies and stories we were told in school.

While regular and lifetime drug use among the general population is considerably lower than the rest of Europe, can Sweden’s drug policy be called a success if it has the highest rate of overdose mortality in Europe?

No. If we are good at preventing but we can’t take care of the people who are dying then it’s obviously not working. Since our prevention efforts are so effective I guess we need to focus more attention on treatment too. But if I could only choose one way to do it, I would choose prevention.

 

It’s really difficult to draw a solid causal relationship between government policies and the drug situation in Sweden. Sweden’s system is far from perfect; it has received both praise and condemnation from around the world. It is really interesting to look at how different countries approach domestic drug policies whether it be Sweden, Portugal or the USA, but it’s also really important to remember that when comparing different nations, each comes with its own set of complex challenges, so what works really well in one nation might not be at all suitable for another.

References:

Drug policy in Sweden: a repressive approach that increases harm, Transform.

Sweden's successful drug policy: A review of the evidence, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

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