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Henrik Tham: Abolish the slogan "a drug free society"

From Oberoende, The official magazine for RFHL (National Organization for Help to Narcotics and Drug Addicts),

By Henrik Tham
Prof. Criminology University of Stockholm
Translation: John Yates <>

A couple of years ago, Swedish Television showed a film about South Africa. The film was about the love affair between a white man and a coloured woman. The couple knew of course about their country’s laws against this type of relationship, and they did everything they could to conceal it. They never went out together, they only met at night, she used the backdoor to his house and was very careful not to keep her possessions in his apartment.

But the police were onto them. During a raid on his apartment the police found, at the bottom of his laundry basket, a pair of panties which were sent to a laboratory for forensic analysis. In the final scene the woman is seen lying in the gynecologist’s chair with her legs apart while a male doctor puts on his plastic gloves. The final evidence of their crime would be found inside the woman’s vaginal canal.

The crime the couple committed against South African law did not have any actual victims. Therefore the crime was difficult to prove, no one had reported anything, no one was hurt (beside the couple), no one risked getting hurt. And yet at the same time the government insisted that whatever the cost - measures were to be taken against this crime. The consequences were inevitable, the state literally had to penetrate this woman in order to determine through her bodily fluids if she was a criminal.

This South African administration of justice shocks us and yet at the same time, the same way of thinking has become part of Swedish narcotics policy. Consumption of narcotics is illegal and punishable in Sweden. Surreptitious use, which is not directly visible through harmful actions, is seen as a particular danger to society. Evidence can only be secured when the government uses force to take blood and urine samples from its citizens and thereby determine if any crime has been committed.

It has not always been like this in Sweden. During the 1970’s Swedish drug policy had a relatively humane attitude towards drug users. At the beginning of the 1980s this policy changed direction. The abuser was now regarded as the only irreplaceable link in the drug supply chain and if he could only be stopped from using drugs then inevitably the whole chain would collapse. Efforts were concentrated on the user in the form of criminalisation of consumption, frequent raids and forced treatment. The was to be, according to the official slogan, "a drug free society".

Well, it might be objected, hard drug abuse is a problem both for the individual and for society, and a harder and more repressive drug policy could be accepted if such a policy resulted in a decrease in the damage caused by drugs. However any such result is difficult to ascertain. The number of drug users increased by 40% between the late 1970s and early 1990s. And even if there was a fall in the numbers of those being recruited to drug use in the 1980s, the numbers dropped even more during the so called "piss-liberal" 1970s.

The costs of the harder drug policy however are obvious and include disregard for principles of justice, introduction of forced treatment and increased use of imprisonment. A rise in drug related deaths cannot be excluded either. Sweden criminalised, in contradiction with Swedish legal practice, the actual use of narcotics in 1988. In an internal investigation by the Department of Justice of the introduction of punishment for personal drug use, it was stressed that "it is in principle wrong to criminalise acts which are directed towards ones own person".

The same investigation maintained that blood and urine tests are "deep violations of the integrity of the person". Despite this, in 1993 the police were given authority to perform these tests and up to the end of1997 39.000 blood and urine tests have been taken.

During the 1980’s special laws were passed in Sweden allowing forced treatment for adult abusers. Such treatment has never been shown to have any positive effect on drug abuse. On the other hand Sweden is relatively unique from an European perspective in having such laws. Imprisonments for narcotics related offences have tripled since the late ‘70s. The long prison sentences together with application harder narcotics laws has contributed to the worsened situation in prisons.

The number of drug related deaths are high seen from an European perspective. This is particularly notable as the higher mortality rates are mainly found amongst heroin addicts and this group is limited in Sweden compared with other countries. The high and rising death toll should be considered alongside the official Swedish claim of a successful narcotics policy. Against this background the question must be asked if the Swedish restrictive narcotics policy, by neglecting harm reduction, is not actually contributing to the high death toll.

Despite this control policy, Sweden has not become "drug free". Quite the opposite, developments during the 1990’s point in the other direction, at least in regards to occasional drug use. But what then, are the reactions? Proposals for even more of the same medicine. Telephone tapping has been introduced and used previously mainly in regards to narcotics related crime. Now proposals for the use of bugging are foremost in the investigative process. Once again narcotics legitimise the introduction of "unorthodox measures".

The thousands of blood and urine tests taken by the police to prevent narcotics use are not considered enough. Organisations and employers now demand compulsory tests in schools and workplaces. The police want the power to give drug users emetics in order to prove narcotics crimes. And the countries largest opposition party now demands life imprisonment for serious drug crimes.

To these existing and planned control costs should be added the direction the policy debate is taking. Swedes cause friction with their European neighbours by conceitedly marketing the superiority of their narcotics policy while at the same time avoiding listening to the experiences of other countries. EU parliamentarians from other countries who propose decriminalisation of cannabis are described as narcotics Mafia in Sweden’s largest evening paper.

Legal heroin and clean needle distribution programmes that could reduce the suffering of addicts are dismissed from the debate by pointing out that "society has to underline its rejection of drugs." Young people are alienated from adult society when the rave culture is defined as a narcotics problem that the police have to solve with top priority. And the Prime Ministers adviser in criminal and drug political questions, member of parliament Widar Andersson can, without any politic criticism say: "The freedom of speech should be limited for those who overtly or covertly spread drug propaganda".

The slogan "a drug free society" is a fundamentalist slogan. It is an expression that means we have to eliminate something whatever the price. The demand for a drug free Sweden becomes the demand for a drug user free Sweden. Every addict becomes one addict too many and the costs to achieve this goal never become too high.