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Finnish Drug Consumption Rooms Gain Popular and Political Support

According to the latest EMCDDA Drug Report, there were 258 drug-induced deaths in Finland in 2020, one of the highest rates in Europe considering the population size is about 5 and half million. To prevent increasing drug deaths, the city of Helsinki tried to introduce in 2019 a separate law reform that would allow for drug consumption rooms (DCRs) in the city. Late last year, Veronika Honkasalo from the Left Party Alliance with several other members of the Finnish Parliament inquired from the minister in charge when the government would act on the proposed initiative by the city of Helsinki as they had failed to do so. Earlier this year the National Institute of Health Social Affairs (THL) also recommended DCRs as one of many ways to prevent drug-induced deaths, but the Finnish government has not yet managed to implement such a law, nor has it signalled willingness to do so. Drug use and possession have been considered criminal acts in Finland since 1972 and this half a century old law is now preventing the implementation of DCRs and thereby an effective harm reduction measure that could save lives.

Recently, a citizen’s initiative calling for legislative reform to allow DCRs managed to obtain the required 50,000 signatures for parliamentary consideration. The initiative was initiated in early February 2022 by a group of social and health workers that work closely with people who use drugs and other marginalised populations. After a promising start, the amount of signatures stalled, and five months later in early July, the initiative had only collected around 19,000 signatures. For a while it seemed unlikely it would manage to get the required amount but the last month saw an exponential increase in signatories and the campaign has, as of now, collected almost 55,000 signatures.

According to the Finnish national drug survey (2018), half of Finns completely or partially approve of DCRs while about 36% are against them. An article in Helsingin Sanomat, one of the largest read newspapers in Finland and Nordic countries, underscored that three of the five parties in the coalition government (the Left Alliance, the Green League and the Swedish People's Party of Finland) openly support the implementation of DCRs. The Prime Minister’s party, the Social Democrats (the fourth coalition partner), are “carefully open” to their use, as is the main opposition party, the National Coalition Party. The Centre Party of Finland, which is the fifth and final coalition partner, did not explain to Helsingin Sanomat why they oppose the use of these rooms. Other political parties opposing DCRs have said they are ineffective in tackling drug problems or give too positive a signal about drug use.

Despite relatively wide support for safe consumption rooms from the public and some political parties, and the successful citizen’s initiative, it is unlikely that the acting government will implement any major drug policy reforms due to upcoming parliament elections in the spring of 2023. This seems to run against what was outlined in Finland's new substance abuse and addiction strategy, which strengthened the rights of people who use drugs, addiction and substance service users, as well as people close to them. The strategy is set to run until 2030, meaning that policies conducted within the strategy’s goals should not be stalled due to political tactics.

Nonetheless, the citizen’s initiative did succeed in generating another round of public discussions around the topic of drug policy in Finland, similarly to the initiative to decriminalise the adult use and possession of cannabis did prior to it in 2019. The cannabis initiative implemented by the Finnish Cannabis Association called for the decriminalisation of adult cannabis use, possession and small-scale cultivation by amending the Finnish Penal Code. It managed to collect the required 50,000 signatures at the end of 2019; yet, partly due to the pandemic, the first expert hearing for the Parliamentary Law Committee was not held until February 2021. The Law Committee released its report on the 28th of April 2022 in which they recommended rejecting the initiative.

Thus, even though the initiative for DCRs has managed to collect the required signatures, there are no guarantees that the proposed legal pilot will succeed in its implementation. In addition, this process will most likely take time to be discussed before it is potentially implemented.

A positive endorsement has come from the National Police Board of Finland, who expressed in a blog post in August 2022 that a pilot for a well-designed DCR could offer opportunities for harm reduction, reduce the attractiveness of drugs, develop and improve treatment guidance. However, they do mention that DCRs would require legal reform and careful consideration with all involved stakeholders before implementation moves forward. One of the considerations they highlight is the importance of limiting its user group “for adult drug addicts who need it the most”, leaving it unclear for readers who would evaluate such a need.

Nonetheless, this unprecedented support from the police for SCRs could signal a major shift in the Finnish drug policy landscape. While it is commendable that a public health approach is leading drug policy reform, this issue may fall out of the public agenda if the implementation process is too slow. And the sad reality is that while we talk, people die.

*Aleksi Hupli holds a PhD in Sociology from Tampere University and acts as a board member in the Finnish Association for Humane Drug Policy. He is also a member of the Civil Society Forum on Drugs (CSFD) which is an expert group to the European Commission. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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