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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

Chapter 20 - Public Policy In Other Countries - Sweden



When contrasting a successful model with the Dutch "failure", the witnesses we heard invariably mentioned Sweden. In Sweden, the drug phenomenon is considered one of the most serious social problems (if not the most serious), and drugs are viewed as an external threat to the country.[2][100] Drug addiction is often viewed as the cause of other social problems and the drug problem itself as jeopardizing Sweden's traditional values. These concerns have intensified since Sweden became a member of the European Union (EU) in 1995, since most of the other members of the EU have adopted a more liberal attitude on drug issues. In comparison to other western European countries, Swedish drug policy is regarded as restrictive. One of the aims of the policy is to make it clear that drugs are not tolerated in society, and its overall goal is a drug-free society. In particular, we observe that:

··          harm reduction programs are available in a limited fashion only;

··          treatment is based on obtaining complete abstinence and it is possible to force people into treatment;

··          drug use is an offence, and urine and blood tests are used to detect those suspected of drug use;

··          drug legislation is strictly enforced;

··          discussions regarding the medical value of cannabis are almost non-existent;

··          Swedish legislation strictly adheres to, and even exceeds, the requirements set out in the three United Nations drug conventions.


While Swedish drug policy is currently very restrictive, this was not always the case. In fact in the 1960s, its policy was fairly liberal, basically reflecting a harm reduction approach.[3][101] For example, from 1965 to 1967, it was possible for severe drug abusers to obtain prescriptions for morphine and amphetamines. This non-scientific experiment (involving approximately 120 people) was used by Nils Bejerot, a police doctor and very influential figure in Swedish drug policy, in his study of the relationship between drug use and drug policy in the period between 1965-1970. Some of his findings included: that changes from restrictive to permissive policy and vice versa was reflected in the rates of intravenous drug use; that this experiment was the origin of the Swedish drug epidemic; and that the experiment did not have the desired effect of crime reduction. His findings are still widely accepted in Sweden even though they have been criticised.[4][102]

With increased drug use in 1965, the Committee on the Treatment of Drug Abuse was established: it published four reports from 1967 to 1969. The first report dealt with treatment and the second with repressive measures. It is this second report which led to the adoption of the Narcotic Drugs Act in 1968. The Committee’s reports indicated that the drug problem was on the increase. This finding, in conjunction with the findings of Bejerot, are partly responsible for the more restrictive approach adopted by Sweden in the late 1960s. In addition, since 1968, the government organized a massive media and school campaign against drugs. This led to a generation growing up with messages based on the gateway theory, among others.[5][103] This theory is used as a justification for being restrictive in relation to cannabis and "Swedish drug policy actually focuses on cannabis, since it is alleged ‘drug careers’ start with this substance."[6][104] In addition, the dangers caused by cannabis itself (psychosis, addictive character, higher risk of suicide, etc.) are seen as reasons for having a restrictive policy.

Over time, Swedish policy became more restrictive and repressive, resulting in the strengthening of penalties, criminalizing of use, and allowing of urine and blood tests for those suspected of use. Although the original goal of the urine and blood tests was to detect new users and provide them with appropriate treatment, it would appear that the tests are no longer being used for this sole purpose as known drug users are also being targeted.[7][105]

Some authors have drawn a link between Sweden’s restrictive drug policy and its restrictive alcohol policy. The temperance movement has a long history in Sweden and the country has developed a fairly restrictive alcohol policy, including a state monopoly on the sale of alcohol.


Swedish attitudes towards alcohol are relevant since a restrictive alcohol policy makes a restrictive drug policy a logical option. Moreover, the total consumption model on which the alcohol policy is based, is thought to be valid for illicit drugs as well. By limiting the total consumption of drugs, the total harm caused by drugs is alleged to be lower as well. However, it was shown that this correlation is far from clear when it comes to (different) illicit drugs. [8][106]


[1][99]  This section draws to a large degree on the report prepared for the Committee by the Library of Parliament: G. Lafrenière, (2001) National Drug Policy: Sweden. Ottawa: Library of Parliament, report prepared for the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, available online at www.parl.gc.ca/illegaldrugs.asp. For more information, see also T. Boekhout van Solinge, (1997) The Swedish Drug Control System: An in‑depth review and analysis, Centre for Drug Research, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, 1997.

[2][100]  European NGO Council on Drugs and Development, A Snapshot of European Drug Policies : Report on the state of drug policies in 12 European countries, October 2001, page 27.

[3][101]  United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, Country Drug Profile : Sweden, 1998, page 1.

[4][102]  Boekhout van Solinge, op. cit., page 45.

[5][103]  European NGO Council on Drugs and Development, op. cit., page 27.

[6][104]  Boekhout van Solinge, op. cit., page 88.

[7][105]  Ibid., page 116‑117.

[8][106]  Ibid., page 103.

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