When we think of Sweden we might think of humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and progressive politics. For the most part this is true, however when it comes to drug policy, Sweden is far from humane.
Sweden has one of the toughest drug laws in Europe with personal drug use a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment of up to three years. That means if you happen to be stopped by police on suspicion of illegal drug consumption, as some 35,000 a year are, you are taken to a police station to perform a urine or blood test. An unfortunate statistic when an increasingly large proportion of these drugs tests show false positives. You are then at risk of imprisonment for up to 36 months regardless of what drug it is or how much of it you have. As we see most of the world relaxing drug laws due to booming medicinal research, Sweden has been progressively prohibiting drug use. But why?
Their Ministry of Health and Social Affairs claims this harsh stance is to “protect people from the harmful effects of drugs”, yet they have the second highest drug-induced mortality rates in Europe and half of the prison population is classified as having problematic drug use. This is a far cry from the “balanced policy based on health and human rights” the United Nations has described Sweden’s drug policy to be.
A balanced strategy aiming to reduce health inequalities would dictate that drug classification and penalisation be reflective of the potential harm to both self and society, and that evidence-based medicinal uses for substances not be ignored. It would then be assumed that Sweden’s Schedule 1 drugs defined as having no medicinal use would have no therapeutic value, right? Wrong. Cannabis, psilocybin, LSD, and ecstasy are all considered Schedule 1 drugs.
Andreas Thörn was charged and convicted for cultivating and using medicinal marijuana in 2015 for his paralysing spinal cord damage, IBS, chronically inflamed prostate, and depression. It was only once he appealed to the Supreme Court that they dropped charges in 2017 and granted him the prescribed use of Sativex. Only one other woman in Sweden has been allowed the same. An 80-year-old woman from the Swedish town of Gävle was not so lucky when arrested and jailed in 2019 for self-medicating with cannabis and amphetamines to alleviate chronic hip pain. Why not just take CBD oil I hear you say? Well, that’s because as of 2019 CBD oil was effectively made illegal too, as a Schedule 1. The law states any CBD oil with any THC content at all would be considered a derivative of the cannabis plant, and therefore illegal for sale and consumption. It is unclear, and unlikely CBD oil can be manufactured without any traces of THC. To put this into perspective, in Japan CBD oil must have less than 0.02% THC, in the UK it’s 0.2%, and in the US 0.3%.
The uncompromising nature of Sweden’s drug policy is counterproductive in more than one way. Take for example Sweden’s problematic alcohol culture. Efforts to tackle this have again been through regressive policies, phases of increasing and decreasing taxation on alcoholic beverages, as well as implementing a state-owned alcohol monopoly called ‘Systembolaget’. We know there is a significant association between drug use and binge drinking; around 74% of 17 and 18-year-olds who have used drugs reported monthly binge drinking in Sweden. What some may not know is that LSD is highly effective in treating alcoholism. A 2012 meta-analysis of randomised controlled studies conducted in the 1960s concluded that a single dose of LSD had a significant and long-lasting beneficial effect on a drinking problem for 59% of patients who received it, in comparison to the 38% of patients who took a placebo. Given the detrimental consequences of alcoholism in Sweden, they could potentially resolve a national problem while tackling the very issue they are fighting to solve, with a substance they’re fighting against.
In Sweden’s regressive and retributive drugs policy there is a serious lack of judicious judgement. For most of the globe, evidenced-based research can often be sidelined by the media and political gain. In Sweden out-dated propaganda lurks in their schools, news and politics, propelling a questionable “zero-tolerance” approach to create a “drug-free” society. I think most would agree with psychiatrist Martin Kåberg from Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm when he says this isn’t realistic. After all, we all are sold and take drugs regularly. The only difference is some are labelled as medication, while others are stigmatized and criminalized. Though both can be problematic, there have been more drug-induced deaths attributable to prescribed substances than illicit ones. Of those who have lost their lives to illegal drug use, street narcotics such as heroin and crack have been mostly to blame, with almost no deaths attributable to psychedelics. If Sweden’s problematic drug use is credited to amphetamines (a Schedule 2), why are psychedelics such as cannabis, psilocybin, and LSD still a Schedule 1? Particularly when there is scientific evidence on their medicinal properties. Would all of this not mean classification systems are not only wrong but are seriously failing us? Yes, beyond any reasonable doubt.
Whether you agree or disagree with above, one thing we can all agree on is that the purpose of policy is to guide decisions to achieve rational outcomes. The only question remaining is what can we do about it?
Before you go back to your daily routine, ask yourself what if you were Andreas? What if that had been your grandmother? What if you wanted a non-toxic way out of a debilitating scenario? What if you preferred recreational drug use over alcohol? Ask yourself how you’d feel if you had paved the way for ground-breaking research and then been left behind bars and forgotten about? We need to push for more well-informed decisions on policies driven by evidence-based research. It adds up; every person who thinks they can’t make a difference – and therefore, you can.
To get you started here are a few links:
The International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies are calling for drug law reform in Sweden due to the number of drug-related fatalities. You can support them in a number of ways via this link https://idhdp.com/en/support-us/join-now.aspx.
The Swedish Network for Psychedelic science is a non-profit organisation working to promote the scientific study of psychedelic substances. For those living in Sweden, they also host seminars, social gatherings and other educational platforms, and can be found here https://www.psykedeliskvetenskap.org/about.
Finally, Swedish political parties such as the Liberals, Centre Party, Swedish Democrats, Christian Democrats, and the Left Party, have admitted their current drug policy needs to be revisited. You can help with their review by going on their websites and writing to them. This website provides a little about each party with links to their political websites.https://sweden.se/society/political-parties-in-sweden/.