Sweden reported 92.9 deaths linked to narcotics use per million of adults in 2014, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) – more than four times the European average of 19.2 deaths per million.
The Nordic country's drug-induced mortality rate has also soared from a domestic perspective in the past two decades, from 70 cases in 1995 to 609 in 2014. The centre-left government has now tasked the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) with investigating the reasons in order to bring the number down.
“Sweden has high drug-related mortality, which is serious and concerning. To turn the trend around an effort is required on several different levels. The job we now give Socialstyrelsen is an important step in that work,” Health Minister Gabriel Wikström told the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper on Friday.
The board will now spend the next months discussing the issue with other actors in society, such as police and healthcare services, and has been asked to present a national action plan by April 30th designed to start bringing the drug-induced mortality rate down by 2020.
“The fundamental goal is to get to grips with narcotics-related mortality. Then one should be honest about it being a big job and that more efforts will be required. But the goal is that Socialstyrelsen find effective measures that future work can build on,” said Wikström.
Health Minister Gabriel Wikström. Photo: Daniel Kihlström/TT
Sweden criminalized illicit drug use in 1988, thanks in large part to a two-decade campaign by a group called the Swedish National Association for a Drug-free Society (RNS). It followed a two-year attempt to introduce a more tolerant approach that was considered a failure by authorities.
Sweden also puts a strong emphasis on prevention strategies, with extensive drug awareness programmes in schools and even preschools. Some substances are used in certain cases as approved medical treatment.
According to figures released by EMCDDA last year, only nine percent of the Swedish school population has tried cannabis, compared to 39 percent in France, 42 percent in the Czech Republic and around 25 percent in Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands.
But concerns have previously been raised that the country's tough 'zero tolerance' policy may be pushing up the number of drug-related deaths in the country.
Nine in ten Swedes told a survey in November that they think illicit drugs should remain banned.