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How did Sweden end up with its zero-tolerance attitude to drugs?

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
How did Sweden end up with its zero-tolerance attitude to drugs?

Sweden has one of the most conservative attitudes to narcotic use in the world. But as recently as the 1940s, the use of amphetamines was not only legal but encouraged. We spoke to Johan Wicklén, author of a book on Sweden's zero-tolerance policy.


Wicklén, a prize-winning journalist for Sweden's public broadcaster SVT, last year published a book on the history of Swedish drugs policy titled Vi ger oss aldrig, or "We will never give way", subtitled: "This is what happened when Sweden lost the war on drugs". 

Generations of Swedes, Wicklén argues, have been through a process of indoctrination on drug use and drug policy, making it difficult for policy makers today to propose more rational, pragmatic solutions to the problem. 

"Indoctrination", he admits in an an interview for the Sweden in Focus podcast, is "a word you're not supposed to use recreationally. But in this case, I worked on my book for two and a half years. I've been deep down the archives. I've have done my due diligence. And it's absolutely has been an indoctrination process, and you can see it in a million ways." 

He said that since the late 1960s, government after government has constantly sought to drill a zero-tolerance message into the public mind. 

"What you can see is different amounts of political propaganda in different time periods, sometimes harder, sometimes a bit softer. But information has always been a big part of this, up until maybe the middle of the 1990s," he reports. 

People who went to school in the 1980s were particularly heavily indoctrinated into the idea that all illegal drugs are dangerous, with cannabis use inexorably leading to heroin addiction, and a zero-tolerance approach the only political solution.

"There's a big generational gap. It's really easy to see which generations have been through this indoctrination process," Wicklén said. 

Sweden's hardline stance on drugs was set in the late 1970s, Wicklén reports.

"That's when the authorities formulated the idea of a drug-free society. That's when we were starting to distance ourselves from a lot of other countries. The policy is restrictive: that means that illegal drugs are not tolerated in any way. In the 1970s, our politicians stipulated that non-medical drug use was foreign to Swedish culture. It could never be tolerated."


Surprisingly in the 1920s, cocaine use was widespread and in the 1930s and 1940s use of amphetamines, which Wicklén describes as 'the most Swedish drug of them all' was positively encouraged. 

"We love our amphetamines just like we love our coffee, because it's dark and we we need to be invigorated here," he jokes. "But amphetamine wasn't illegal in beginning. Quite the contrary. you were supposed to take them. It was good for everything. You could get different kinds of amphetamines at pharmacies, without a prescription even." 

It was the counter-culture of the 1960s and their embrace of drugs that led to the backlash, with the zero tolerance approach being set in the 1970s. 

At the time, Wicklén reports, policy-makers really believed that that a drug-free society was possible. 

"We were a really isolated country and homogenous in a way that we are not today. We had a public service monopoly and we also had this history of social engineering, so there were really a lot of people thought that we could achieve this drug-free society." 

It was only in the 1990s, with Sweden joining the EU, liberalising the media, and the arrival of the internet that this began to look less realistic. 

But drugs policy is nonetheless still largely stuck in this approach, with no political party campaigning for liberalisation laws on consumption of cannabis despite overwhelming evidence that the policy is failing.

"This is absolutely something that is still in many people's minds. Knark, we talk about knark," Wicklén says, referencing the single term used in Sweden to cover all drugs. "It's everything that we're not supposed to be doing. It doesn't matter if it's heroin or amphetamines or cannabis." 


This is despite the fact that Sweden frequently leads Europe in the rate of drug-related deaths, and the proceeds of drug smuggling and drug dealing are one of, if not the major cause of the country's problems with gang crime. 

"Cannabis sales are a base income for organised crime, because cannabis is by far the most popular illegal drug," he says.

"If you look at all the money that the illegal drug market creates every year, cannabis makes up for like 45 percent of that, and it's also a market that is easily accessible, especially for young guys. The cocaine market is more closed. You need to have better sources to score." 

In the last 20 years, he adds, the cannabis market has become professionalised, with drug gangs increasingly controlling the entire distribution chain, all the way from Morocco to Sweden and then on to Norway and Finland. 

"You have had organised crime that is really entrepreneurial, and that has been taking a strong place outside of Swedish borders." 

For Wicklén, the zero tolerance approach has also led to significant encroachments into personal liberty, with the police in the 1990s winning the right to insist on taking urine or blood samples from people simply on suspicion of drug use. 

"That's very foreign for a lot of people that aren't Swedish. But here, it's just the way it is. And in the last couple of years, about 40,000 urine samples per year are taken on suspicion of drug use and I would argue that this wouldn't be possible in a lot of European countries. You wouldn't let the state do this on a suspicion of a soft crime. But here in Sweden, we trust our authorities and this is not a scandal." 


According to Wicklén, it's no good pointing a moralistic finger at drug users and blaming them for gang crime. Policy makers should simply accept that drugs will always be in demand. 

"The problem is that demand will never go away. People will use drugs. They will intoxicate themselves. And now we have a truly global drug market, which means people want to experiment with other drugs than those they have traditionally had had access to, like alcohol in our cultural sphere. But the problem is that the drug markets are this valuable because they they are illegal. Researchers are talking about the 'prohibition premium'. 

He is under no illusions, however, that liberalising drugs is a cure-all solution. 

"And I'm not saying it's that easy. If you just legalise it, it will go away. No way. This is a really, really complex problem," he admits. 

But he is also quite clear that what won't work is doubling down on the failed zero-tolerance approach of the past, or pledging even more draconian crackdowns on drug users, even though that has been the approach for the last 40 years, with about 90 percent of drug convictions for possession of small quantities, and only 10 percent or less for selling drugs. 

"A lot of politicians have raised the bet now and are going on the offensive against drug users," he says. "We have already tried it since the 80s, so it's kind of an interesting time to be a journalist covering drug policy, because you can see a lot of people are coming in and debating this without having a sense of what we have already done." 


He said he was particularly concerned that politicians so rarely discussed the health impact of drug use or using treatment programmes to reduce demand.  

"I wonder why there are no politicians talking about more health measures, not only for the people using heroin and the heavier drugs, but also those using cannabis. Why is nobody talking about that? Why don't we target them and and maybe see if we could get them to use drugs less?" 

He said that it remained partly a mystery why Sweden has such high overdose death rates.  

"Of course, we were really late with needle exchange and methadone programs, and we did stigmatise heavy drug users, but it's more complex than that," he said. "It's also something with our culture and our ways of doing all drugs." 

He noted that other northern countries like Scotland, Norway, Finland, and Estonia also had problems with high drug deaths, and similar issues with alcohol abuse.

"There's something with our intoxication culture, or maybe something with our way to be human. But that's something a bit more deeper." 


Despite the evidence of failure, however, Wicklén says that there were few signs of a reevaluation of drug policy, judging by the reaction to the proposal from Sara Skyttedal, a Christian Democrat MEP, for a legalisation of cannabis. 

It wasn't wasn't so strange that it was a relatively young politician that said this," he says. "A politician of 40-plus or 50-plus couldn't have said this. I reckon. And also, it wasn't wasn't a shock that it came from someone that has been down in Europe." 

"But of course, among Swedish Christian Democrats, this is a taboo and it sent a shockwave through the party. So obviously, we're not ready to discuss this." 

But this does not mean that he's willing to bet that Sweden will never see a shift in drug policy. 

"One thing I've learned about Sweden is that we tend to change our minds overnight. Yeah, we do a 180 degree turn and then we pretend that we have always thought this way.  We've seen it in recent years with immigration policy and it might well happen with drug policy too." 

"For me, I just long for a more moderate Sweden that can be like, 'okay, let's be pragmatic. Let's think about it. Let's be smart about this'."


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