Scandinavian inconsistencies

In the Nordic countries, the construction of drug policy started in earnest as a reaction to the drug wave of the 1960s. While Denmark and Sweden had a rather mild initial reaction, Norway was immediately struck by moral panic, and passed some of the strictest anti-drug laws in Europe. A war-like rhetoric where drugs were presented as a grave threat introduced by inhuman, foreign drug peddlers who targeted young people in schools was dominant.

In the 1970s, Sweden would become gradually stricter as well. The Swedish psychiatrist Nils Bejerot saw drug use as a threatening epidemic that warranted a strong repressive reaction for the greater good of society. His ideas substantially influenced public opinion and government policy, which became gradually stricter. The repressive trend in Sweden has continued uninterrupted, with increasing penalties and countless drug tests currently being performed on mere suspicion of use. Sweden is today one of the most punitive countries in Europe.

Denmark, on the other hand, has had a different rhetoric altogether. Drugs were initially seen as part of a new youth culture of exploration and experimentation rather than a grave threat to society, and criminalising drug users was believed to cause harmful alienation of youth. The drug trade, however, was criminalized with exceptional powers being given police in combating it.

While Norway was initially the strictest country, it gradually departed from the repressive policies seen in Sweden, allowing syringe exchanges with the arrival of HIV in the 1980s. In Sweden, syringe exchanges and substitution treatment were seen as an acceptance of drug use, and the availability has been severely limited. Clients in treatment have been subjected to discrimination and abuses. Conversely, milder legal reactions and increased availability of substitution medicine has been a gradual trend in Norway. However, discrimination and repression of drug users is still widespread in Norway, albeit less so than in Sweden.

Heroin maintenance treatment has recently been made available to addicts in Denmark, and while drug use was eventually criminalised in 2004, the country is still far more tolerant than Norway and Sweden. Municipal authorities in Copenhagen have, for instance, repeatedly attempted to legalise and regulate cannabis since 2009, albeit being vetoed by the Justice Ministry each time.

Dissenting Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie was ahead of his time in taking a critical view of repressive policies in the midst of the most aggressive phase of the international drug war. Christie, well-known for his and Kettil Bruun's 1984 masterpiece on Scandinavian drug policy: The Suitable Enemy, saw drugs as a politically convenient enemy that could be used to divert attention from underlying social problems and recommended decriminalisation and regulation.

Since 2009, Christie has been joined by a host of other Norwegian scientists and politicians publicly supporting policies of decriminalisation. Most notable is, perhaps, former minister of foreign affairs, Thorvald Stoltenberg, who was recently part of the Global Commission on Drugs. There has been a surprisingly open debate about heroin maintenance treatment and cannabis legalisation, and although the results of the debate has hitherto been modest, the taboo on discussion has at least been lifted.

There is, sadly, little evidence of such rhetorical trends in Sweden, where government politicians have come to see European drug policy in general as a threat to the orthodoxy of its' repressive policies. Sweden is taking notice of the change in international debate however, as opinion pieces questioning current policies are appearing with increasing frequency in local papers.

Policies in the Nordic countries are usually informed by modern science and human rights. Drug policy is, arguably, a notable exception: current drug policy in Scandinavia is not, in any substantial manner, based on science or humanism, but largely, as we have seen, on fearful rhetoric and moral panic.

Scandinavian countries are often heralded for their solid welfare policies. Why, then, is it that Nordic countries diverge so markedly in a policy area such as drugs? After all, the manner in which drug use is treated is of direct concern to the most vulnerable people in a welfare state. In Norway, for example, 42% of all prisoners are imprisoned mainly on drug charges. Many fall back into crime. No-one knows how many careers or lives are ruined, not because of the drugs, but because of additional stigmatization and punishment. Punishment of what could otherwise have been non-problematic drug use or of people who should arguably have gotten social and psychiatric aid, not the opposite of such aid, which, in effect, punishment constitutes.

While Denmark has largely followed the same international trend, it has been radically more liberal in a comparative context. One explanation of the difference is the historically strong position of the temprance movement in Norway and Sweden and a more liberal tradition in Denmark. Arguably, much of the fear has also been an international import. Norway and Sweden stand out as having been sufficiently illiberal to give in to international pressure. Denmark has kept some of its' integrity and stayed more true to its' democratic heritage. A feat the Danish, like the Dutch, can probably be proud of when future generations scrutinize our current drug policies.