A Drug-Free Sweden: By All Means?

An HCLU film about the dream
of a drug-free Sweden:
is Swedish drug policy really
as succesful as its allies claim?

Thanks to our cooperation with the Swedish Drug Users Union in the framework of the European Drug Policy Initiative project (please visit the new website!), HCLU’s video staff traveled to Stockholm in January 2009 to make a documentary about the drug policy of Sweden. We interviewed several people from various ideological and professional backgrounds, visited several organizations and institutions, we read the relevant studies and asked the inconvenient questions.


The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) praised Sweden for its “succesful drug policy” that set an example for the rest of the world how to tackle the drug problem. “I am personally convinced that the key to the Swedish success is that the Government has taken the drug problem seriously and has pursued policies adequate to address it,” wrote Mr. Costa, head of the UNODC in the preface of the report “Sweden’s Succesful Drug Policy: A Review of the Evidence”. The statistics are really impressive indeed if we look at the number of young people experimenting with cannabis for example – Sweden has one of the lowest prevalence of cannabis use in Europe. Some people may say that this indicates the effectivenes of harsh criminal laws and uncompromising efforts to pursue a drug-free society.

However, not everybody agrees with this conclusion. Not even in Sweden, where the majority of the population seems to support the “tough on drugs” approach. There are some professionals and activists who point out that the situation is not so nice behind the shiny surface. The Swedish Drug Users Union (Svenska Brukarföreningen) is one of the brave NGOs that flies in the face of the Swedish Talibans – the fundamentalist who believe in the dogma that all drug use is evil and needs to be eliminated. The organization represents the untouchable pariahs of Swedish society: people who use illicit drugs. SDU, in cooperation with IHRA, produced a shadow-report on the desperate public health and human rights situation of drug users in the country. The report concludes that in its failure to provide comprehensive harm reduction measures such as needle and syringe exchange programmes, the Swedish Government is violating the right to health of people who use drugs, placing them at unnecessary and avoidable risk of HIV and HCV infection. This conclusion was backed by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Professor Paul Hunt, who visited Sweden in 2006 and submitted his report to the General Assembly of the United Nations in February 2007.

Sweden is the only country in Europe that based its national drug policy on the goal (or as they put it, the vision) of a drug-free society. For many it seems to be an innocent, stimulating dream like “world peace” – but it’s not, points out Henrik Tham, Professor of Criminology at the Stockholm University. This zero-vision is dangerous because it implies that total abstinence is a value and goal in itself that transcends other goals like life or health. Indeed, for some Swedes it is more important to be drug-free than to stay alive or avoid HIV infections. That’s why Stockholm is the only capital in Europe where there is no official needle and syringe exchange program, that’s why so many heroin users have to die before getting into methadone treatment. If a society is trying to get rid of drugs it means that it will soon try to get rid of drug users. That is, the war on drugs is always a war on people.

Posted by Peter Sarosi



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