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Europe: Drugs -- Sweden's Strict Policies (Part 4)

  • Jeremy Bransten

In this fourth of a five-part series on drug use and drug policies in Europe, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines the case of Sweden. He finds that, in strong contrast to the Netherlands -- which has decriminalized cannabis-based drugs -- Sweden has sought for almost a quarter-of-a-century to create a "drug-free society" through interdiction and police control.

Prague, 30 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- On drug policies, Sweden represents the opposite end of the spectrum from the Netherlands. Since 1977, the Swedish government's focus has been to prevent people from coming into contact with illicit drugs through police enforcement and interdiction.

This strategy is closer to the model of the U.S. federal government, which allocates most of its resources to what is termed "the war on drugs." In Sweden, unlike most other members of the European Union, the possession and use of any amount of illicit drugs are subject to prosecution.

For much of the 1980s, Sweden's strict policies appeared to work. Drug use, especially marijuana smoking, decreased as police enforcement efforts increased.

But in the 1990s, the statistics reversed course. Drug use, especially among young people, rose sharply to levels close to those of the 1970s, before the strict measures were introduced.

Leif Lenke teaches criminology at Stockholm University and has advised the Council of Europe on drug policy. He explains:

"In the 1990s, you can see that this very good [previous] situation in this [drug] area deteriorated. And I think the situation is back to about what was going on in the 1970s, before the very restrictive Swedish policy was introduced and enforced. So now you see in the 1990s there has been a rather strong increase in young people experimenting with drugs."

Lenke says experimental marijuana use among teenagers and young adults, who are screened when they enter military service, is now comparable to figures in European countries where prohibition is not enforced.

"We have studies with conscripts. Every year, the conscripts are interviewed about their drug habits and so on, and we can see that there has been an increase from 7 percent use in the 1980s to 16 to 17 percent now."

As drug use has gone up, politicians have continued to rely on the police, gradually increasing their powers to enforce the country's anti-drug policy. Since 1993, police have been empowered to stop anyone they suspect was using drugs and force the suspect to provide a blood or urine sample.

But a new report by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention -- a government-funded institute -- questions the effectiveness of these tactics. According to the council, in the period from 1991 to 1997 -- when arrests for minor drug offenses increased by 70 percent -- there was with no decline in drug use statistics.

The problem is not confined to so-called "soft drugs'" like marijuana. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Addiction writes in its annual 2000 report that drug overdose death rates in Sweden are among the highest in the EU and more than seven times higher than in the Netherlands. The report also states that the rate of hepatitis C among intravenous drug users in Sweden is over 90 percent, the highest in Europe.

Tim Boekhout van Solinge, a criminologist and drug-policy expert at the University of Amsterdam, has recently written a book comparing the Swedish and Dutch experience with drugs. During his research, he made repeated visits to the working-class suburbs of Stockholm, Malmoe, and Gothenberg -- Sweden's three major cities. Van Solinge told RFE/RL he was shocked by what he saw. He paints a picture of unemployed, mostly immigrant youths, whiling away their time experimenting with all manner of drugs, often intravenously.

So what went wrong in Sweden? In Stockholm, Leif Lenke says economics has played a big part.

"The Swedish economy at the beginning of the [19]90s deteriorated very strongly and created a high rate of youth unemployment. And that has been so until the last two years. I think that now unemployment is down again. So that is a factor that should be taken into consideration when you try to evaluate the situation in Sweden."

Van Solinge says the economic downturn also led to cutbacks in state-funded, drug-treatment facilities. At a national level, politicians reassigned funds to the police.

"It [drug treatment] costs a lot of money, and in the 1980s the Swedes had all this money. In the 1990s, the welfare state kind of collapsed. There was not so much money. What you could see is that at a local level, where they have to decide about treatment or not, the results were low, it was very expensive, so they didn't put people in treatment anymore, because it was considered too expensive. So, then, the policy became repressive."

Van Solinge also faults the Swedish approach to drug education in schools. He says the overall message conveyed in classrooms -- that all drugs are extremely dangerous and therefore should not be touched -- is ineffectual. Teenagers don't believe it, he says, and in addition they end up ill-informed about drugs that could pose a real danger.

"In Sweden, sometimes if you read prevention material, you think cannabis is really the most dangerous drug that exists. Maybe this worked for some time because everyone believed it, but now we're in a completely different situation. People don't know what to believe anymore and you see kids experimenting with heroin and they don't really know what it is."

Van Solinge says supporters of Sweden's tough drug policy have underestimated social factors, focusing too much on the actual substance instead of concentrating on the reasons people use drugs. He says the fact that drug use is widespread in prisons, even Swedish ones, indicates enforcement cannot work by itself. Admitting as much, he says, would put politicians in a difficult spot. Van Solinge says:

"But of course, politicians don't like to talk about this, they always talk about the drug and not so much what kind of people [use them]. They never like talking about that. It's easier to blame the drug than the difficult social conditions these people are living in, which makes them just more vulnerable to substance use and abuse."

Ted Goldberg, who also teaches at Stockholm University and has written a book entitled "Demystifying Drugs," says flatly that Swedish policy has failed and Swedish policy-makers have begun to confront that reality. Change at the grassroots is already occurring, he says, although slowly.

"Things are changing in Sweden, slowly. We do have examples of 'harm reduction' in Sweden even if we don't talk about them out loud. For instance, we have methadone maintenance and just about a year ago, the number of places for methadone maintenance was increased from 600 to 800. We also have needle exchange programs."

But the issue of drugs remains highly sensitive in Sweden, with little public debate on the subject. Advocates of total prohibition say that decriminalizing certain "soft" drugs -- as has taken place in the Netherlands and some other EU members -- could set a dangerous precedent.

Tomas Hallberg heads a Stockholm-based group (European Cities Against Drugs) backing the Swedish government's zero-tolerance measures. He puts it this way:

"If you criminalize something, you can decriminalize it, and you don't have a problem. You can do that with any crime, if you want to, and say there is no problem whatsoever afterwards."

In January 2001, Sweden assumes the rotating presidency of the EU. Officials in Stockholm had originally announced they would make their strategy for a drug-free society a central plank of their EU program. That idea has been shelved as Sweden -- still admired abroad for its many progressive policies -- finds itself out of step on this one with most of its EU partners.