The Politics of Drug Control

The problem in judging the success of Sweden's drug policy is it is very rare that Sweden, officially and on its own initiative, presents comparisons of the levels of problematic drug use. Olsson argues that as long as amphetamines are included in such comparisons, Sweden looks similar to most other countries which has resulted in much dispute over success of restrictive policy models such as that of Sweden, (Decorte & Korf, 2004, p142). According to estimates published in the annual report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in 2002, many of Sweden's assumptions are false.

The number of heavy drug addicts is approximately the same across the two countries, and is in fact much higher in Sweden if the figure is presented in terms of the number per 1000 of population, 4. 7 compared to 2. 6 of the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, 19. 1% of the population have used cannabis at some point, as compared with 13% in Sweden. It can be argued that this does not show lack of success as the figure of heavy drug addicts may have still decreased if the numbers were very high in the past.

However, figures show in 1979 the number of heavy drug abusers was estimated at 12,000, and in 1992 the figure rose to 17,000 and to 22,000 in 1998, whether this can be called a success is dubious however much spin Swedish policy makers may try put on it. In relation to mortality rates too, the Netherlands appears to have fewer cases of acute drug related deaths among drug addicts than Sweden, despite having a larger number of opiate abusers, (Tham, 2003, p40 and Boekhout van Solinge, 1997, p185 and Chatwin, 2003, p572).

These figures therefore question the two theoretical assumptions of Swedish drug policy: the 'stepping stone hypothesis' and the 'total consumption model' on drug use. According to the latter model we should see an immediate relation between the prevalence of drug use and the spreading of 'heavy drug abuse' i. e. drug addiction and drug related problems, such as drug related deaths. However, the figures show no evidence of this in Sweden or any other EU country. The very low drug use prevalence in Sweden is not reflected in particularly low rates of heavy drug abuse or drug related deaths.

The 'stepping stone hypothesis' is questioned as there is an absence of any relationship between experimental use of cannabis and problematic use of hard drugs and therefore disproves that cannabis use results in harmful drug use, (Decorte & Korf, 2004, p143). The available prevalence figures' data has many limitations as it only refers to 15-16 year old school students and 18 year old military conscripts. The data of only of these young age categories is inadequate to comment on the development on the prevalence of drug use in general.

Moreover, the major decrease in experimental drug use as shown by the Swedish data, did not take place during the 1980s when the concept of a drug free society was introduced, but in the decade before, when the policy was less restrictive, (Boekhout van Solinge, 1997, p184). Even though heroin use is not very substantive due to amphetamines being the drug of choice in Sweden, increasing numbers of young people are smoking heroin, especially in deprived neighbourhoods, which are characterised by a very high unemployment rate and a very large percentage of immigrants.

It is this relationship between young people growing up in problematic social circumstances and their vulnerability to abuse drugs, seems to be very much underestimated. The activities of the police having any success are also very questionable. Their focus on visible drug scenes on the street or raves etc. is confusing as the problematic drug users do not seem to be found here, but among the drug using population in the deprived suburban areas and at those drug scenes they are present the drug users have just 'spread out' to other areas.

Moreover, the urine tests that were originally meant as a way to find previously unknown drug users only had the desired effect in the introductory period. Most of those undergoing the test were drug users already known to the authorities. The treatment programmes implemented seem also seem to be not very effective, at least to a lesser extent than is generally presented. However, the evaluations of compulsory treatment programmes do not give a positive picture. As a matter of fact, there are no indications that they have a life-saving effect.

This is demonstrated in the mortality rates, where the mortality rates amongst drug addicts in Sweden are high but this is particularly high among those drug users who have undergone compulsory treatment, (Boekhout van Solinge, 1997, pp184-187). Even though the policies may have not been successful, the implementation was very successful with numbers of police officers working with drug crime increased continuously as did numbers of persons sentenced to prison for drug offences and the proportion of drug users among those admitted to prisons has also increased, (Tham, 2003, p7-10).

You cannot argue against Sweden's relatively low level of drug problems. However this is not solely due to the repressive drug policy or even a major factor of it. The three main factors that are important are: the unemployment rate, the geographical location of the country and the culture and history of Sweden. In terms of unemployment, a high level of which can be expected to constitute fertile soil for the growth of demand for drugs. Youth unemployment in Sweden never exceeded 5% throughput the 1970s and 1980s.

Therefore it is understandable that unemployment has only attributed to a minor importance in explaining the drug misuse which existed. However, the highest levels of drug use occurred in the early 1970, when youth unemployment was allowed to rise for the first time since the Second World War, and that drug use was highest in the region which had the greatest in youth unemployment, (Dorn, Jepsen and Savona, 1996, pp106-107). The geographical location of Sweden in relation to the major drug routes in Europe means there is little exposure to the drug market, unlike countries like the Netherlands.

This may partially account for much of the variation in heroin addiction between the Netherlands and Sweden. Ollson and Lenke argue that the statistical explanatory power of repressive policies if one excludes the peripheral position and low unemployment of Sweden during the 1980s results in it being 'not statistically significant', meaning repressive policies are not significant for explaining the low drug use and problems in Sweden (Dorn, Jepsen and Savona, 1996, pp109-110).

One has to look at the drug use and problems in the context of the country, and its culture and history. Historically, Sweden has not had a problem with illegal drug use and their culture has been that of conformity. The Swedish population in general has a negative view of drug use and is convinced that drugs pose a major threat to society. In conclusion, the problems of drugs in our society is so complex, no nation's drug policy will work completely.

The Netherlands have a liberal drug policy and it seems to have worked well. On the other hand the Swedish have a repressive policy and it seems to have worked on the surface but in reality is has not at all very well. The success gained by Sweden can be more explained by their previous more liberal policy in the 1960s and 1970s and also the lack of exposure to the drugs market and low unemployment as well as their inherent culture.

The implications of this is that for other countries aiming to formulate an effective drug policy may observe the Netherlands greater success and move towards a liberal drugs policy. Moreover, it is impossible to reach a common drug policy for the whole EU with such contrasting approaches and therefore in the future if the EU was ever to push for a unified drug policy, it may also move more towards a liberal approach. I acknowledge the ambiguity of the effects of such a liberal or repressive drug policy may have on other countries but this is unavoidable.