For some Americans, moving to Sweden can feel like you're not just switching countries, but switching eras. Sweden is years ahead of the US in so many areas - education, health care, sexuality, worker's rights, social welfare, etc. - so it's easy to understand why it feels like entering some progressive Disneyland when I left California for Stockholm earlier this year.
But despite Sweden's perks, there's one issue here that's left me questioning the open-mindedness of the Big Blue & Yellow - weed.
Marijuana is unacceptable in Sweden, both legally and socially.
If you lit a joint outside one of the coolest clubs in Södermalm, even the hippest of the hipsters might look at you like you were shooting heroin in an H&M.
And that's nothing compared to what the police would do if they smelled something funky on you in the bowels of the Stockholm metro. A spliff of Swedish weed could mean a one-way ticket back to the United States for an immigrant like me, and severely impact any Swedish citizen's future based on the social stigma of having such a crime on his or her record.
As a native to the weed capital of the American West, I find this aspect of Sweden baffling and saddening, especially when I'm bragging to my friends back home about all the other benefits of living here.
But I'm not the only one alarmed by Sweden's cannabis stigma. I was recently reading an article about Romania legalizing medical marijuana where a user commented:
“Come on Europe, lets beat the Americans to full legalization!”
This fantasy was immediately shot down by several other commenters, who painted a grim picture of the prospects of legalized marijuana in the following online exchange:
-“We (the EU) have Sweden, not going to happen…”
-“Yeah. It's never going to be legalized in Sweden.”
-“Sweden is completely crazy.”
As a country that much of the world looks to as the prime example of progressivism, Sweden shouldn't have to hear comments describing the country in this way. Especially when the United States - where citizens are denied rights for their sexuality, workers aren't guaranteed sick days or maternity leave, and more citizens are incarcerated than any other country - has decriminalized or granted access to cannabis in nearly half of its states.
Is it possible that Sweden can really be years behind America on a social issue?
More than 20 US states have legalized medicinal cannabis, and in my hometown of Los Angeles, medical pot shops are more common than Starbucks. Recently, Colorado and Washington passed full legalization, and it seems to be only a matter of time until this spreads to the rest of America. Many other countries are following suit, too (Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Uruguay, etc.) and this trend will likely continue spreading internationally.
Yet every Swede I ask about cannabis says they don't see their country budging any time soon.
If this global marijuana movement continues, does Sweden really want to be left in the dust?
It's not only embarrassing for a country with such a progressive reputation to be so backward when it comes to weed, but also economically foolish, considering that the global marijuana market is estimated to be over $140 billion. It would be a shame if Sweden chose to ignore the world's biggest cash crop simply because people look down on it.
So what is it about marijuana that's such a turn-off to Swedes?
Many Swedes associate cannabis with laziness and stupidity. Sure, there are plenty of pot-smoking losers out there, but let's not forget intellectuals and visionaries like Carl Sagan and Steve Jobs who attributed much of their creativity to cannabis. And what about the tech workers of Silicon Valley, where cannabis use is said to be “extremely common.” So the idea of lower productivity or initiative due to smoking a joint is really just a crude stereotype.
When it comes to reasons regarding physical harm, Sweden also needs to do more research. It's virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis, since the lethal level of THC would require smoking roughly 30,000 joints in less than an hour. Meanwhile, a bottle of vodka readily available from state-run liquor retailer Systembolaget can easily kill an overly-zealous teenager.
Further, Scandinavia has a troubled history with alcoholism, and northern Europeans have been found to have higher rates of alcoholism and binge-drinking compared to southern Europeans. One would think that Sweden would embrace cannabis to help combat these unfortunate statistics. Considering the various medicinal benefits of cannabis and its lack of physical addictiveness, it would seem socially responsible for Sweden to offer marijuana to its citizens as a safer alternative to alcohol.
The average Swede, also seems to carry a disdain for marijuana, viewing it as somehow unsophisticated. But to that, I ask: How many times have you gotten on the train late at night with obnoxiously loud drunks, people passed out in their seats, or a fresh puddle of vomit stinking up the train? Do you think that getting home on a Saturday night would be any less sophisticated if Swedes were out enjoying cannabis?
I'm not saying that all Swedes should become stoners. It's just frustrating that so many Swedes carry this cannabis stigma, especially when they are so enlightened about so many other issues.
When I talk to Swedes about certain Americans' opposition to gay marriage, they always ask, “How could people be so old-fashioned and believe that stuff?”
Swedes should know that if their culture doesn't catch up with the modern views on marijuana, before long a lot of people will be asking the same questions about them.
I'm not worried that marijuana will never be accepted in Sweden. It will happen eventually. But for one of the otherwise most progressive countries in the world, Sweden risks letting cannabis become a tarnish on Sweden's crown if it doesn't start lightening up soon.
David Olson, moved from Los Angeles, California to Sweden to pursue a masters degree at the Stockholm School of Economics.