Swedish drug addicts to get free needles

Years after many other countries took the plunge, traditionally liberal-minded Sweden will finally allow drug addicts to trade in their used needles for free clean ones, after decades of thorny debate.

“We want to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. That’s the motive” for a new law being prepared, Health Minister Morgan Johansson told AFP on Thursday.

“Of 14 drug addicts who use needles who contracted HIV last year, 13 of them were in Stockholm and none of them were in Skåne”, a province in southern Sweden where free needles have been handed out to addicts under a controversial test programme since the 1980s, he said.

Many other countries have already introduced similar programmes. But in Sweden there has been fierce opposition to what detractors have called the government’s condoning of drug use.

“But just because you have access to a glass doesn’t mean you’ll become an alcoholic,” Johansson argued.

Under the new law, local authorities across the country will only be allowed to hand out free needles if they can guarantee the addict a spot in a detox programme and follow-up care.

Johansson has long been in favour of the initiative but the Social Democratic government, which has a minority in parliament, has had a hard time rallying support among other political parties to pass a bill. The government this week however reached a deal with its informal allies in the assembly, the Greens and the formerly communist Left Party.

“Theoretically I am sceptical to this, but the proposal is formulated in such a way that it doesn’t just take HIV prevention into account, it also takes the whole person into consideration,” Left Party MP Ingrid Burman told daily Svenska Dagbladet.

The conservative Moderate Party is the only party that remains opposed to the proposal, saying it sends mixed signals: that it is illegal to do drugs but society will provide you with the tools you need to break the law.

The bill is expected to be presented to parliament in the autumn, and could enter into force in January 2006 at the earliest.