A Tale of Two Countries
Sweden - A tightening of policy
Pot Night - The Book, Channel 4 Television, 1995
Sweden has one of the harshest drugs policies in the world. And while other European nations are becoming increasingly liberal, Sweden is actively hardening its policy on cannabis.
The common perception of Swedish society as permissive is in direct contrast to their actual position. Many of Sweden's attitudes are, in fact, based on its temperance tradition, and there is very little tolerance of drugs, alcohol or tobacco.
In many countries, including Britain, it is common for people in possession of cannabis to face only a caution. In Sweden, however, offenders are always prosecuted.
A turning point
Traditionally Sweden has not distinguished between hard and soft drugs. The frequency of use rather than the type of drug determines whether somebody is regarded as a 'heavy drug abuser'. Therefore Sweden's approach to cannabis is influenced by its overall drug policy.
After a relatively liberal stance in the 1970s, the 1980s saw a major tightening of policy. Accordingly, police stepped up their street-level activities, and offences rose from 22,500 in 1979 to 68,000 in 1982. The greater law enforcement and the tougher laws instituted at this time translated into a marked turning-point in juvenile cannabis use. A survey of Stockholm school leavers revealed the following changes:
- In 1967, 23 per cent of boys had used drugs, mainly cannabis.
- In 1970, this had reached 34 per cent.
- Since the 1980s, there has been a rapid decline, and in the last few years, the figure has hovered around 5 per cent
The Swede's stated aim is to be completely drug-free, and they have made concerted efforts to achieve that goal. Since the 1980s, they have applied hard-line enforcement in tandem with campaigns aimed at reducing demand. The Hashish Campaign targeted all parents of 14-year-olds, while Action against Drugs was aimed at changing attitudes among children of seven years and older, as well as among parents and opinion-formers.
In terms of enforcement, Sweden has not only maintained its restrictive line but has enhanced it. In 1988, consumption of narcotics (which includes cannabis) became an offence. It is now quite common for the police to pick up people purely on the suspicion that they have consumed cannabis, and to give them urine and blood tests. And it was only in 1994 that a law was passed that anybody found in possession of cannabis, whatever the amount, would be prosecuted.
Does Sweden's drug policy work
Sweden believes that its policy is successful. It points out not only to the reduction of drug use in schoolchildren, but also to similar statistics for military conscripts. The authorities believe that young people smoking cannabis are a recruiting base for those who become users of more dangerous drugs. An important aspect of how they view their achievement is the fact that the average age of 'heavy drug abusers' has increased considerably, with the majority's initiation into drugs dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.
By international standards, the use of cannabis in Sweden is on a limited scale. Ironically the future may be taken out of Swedish hands, with the increase in international trafficking and less border control between countries.