DRUG POLICY: Sweden’s success in combating drug use

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has praised Sweden for pioneering the most successful illicit drug policy in all Europe, reports David Perrin.

Sweden’s illicit drug use is lower than any other European country. The UN has praised the Swedish policy of wanting a drug-free society and has endorsed its program of increasingly strong laws against drugs as the reason for its success.

In 2003, lifetime prevalence of drug use among 15-16 year olds in Europe was 22 per cent. In Sweden, by comparison, it was only 8 per cent. In 2006, Swedish teenage drug use had fallen to 6 per cent.

Illicit drug use in Sweden has declined in recent years, whereas it has increased in other European countries. Sweden has low levels of HIV/AIDS infections resulting from injecting drug use. Its laws require the country’s small number of syringe exchange programs to divert users into detoxification and rehabilitation programs.

Measuring success

Sweden regularly polls its citizens to determine whether drug use is increasing or decreasing. Surveys are made of teenagers (15-16), the general population (18-64) and military conscripts. The surveys look at drug use in the past month, the past year and over a lifetime. These surveys are important not only to determine drug use trends, but to see which policies are working.

Sweden has enjoyed a broad political consensus over the direction of drug policy with changes in government not leading to changes in drug policy. One of the key planks of Swedish drug policy is the courts’ powers to divert users into detoxification and rehabilitation.

Sweden targets its drug policies at teenagers to stop them trying drugs and, if they get hooked, to get them off drugs quickly and permanently. Sweden’s experience is that if a young person has not taken an illicit drug by age 20, he or she is highly unlikely to use illicit drugs later in life.

Australia has high levels of illicit drug use, similar to most of Europe. We have adopted permissive “harm minimisation” policies which have led to high levels of demand for illicit drugs, with new drugs such as “ice” (methamphetamines) coming on the scene.

Ice is known to cause mental illness, psychosis, violent behaviour and even death in those who try it. The drug is highly addictive with few known methods of rehabilitation.

Sweden has succeeded in its drug policy because it has reduced the number of drug-users, and hence the demand for illicit drugs. This is a lesson Australia has yet to learn. Sweden is not on a known drug route, so drug crime syndicates avoid trafficking to Sweden because of the difficulty involved. High prices, few outlets and strong drug policies deter the supply of drugs.

Like Sweden, Australia is not on a known drug supply route; but we have weak policies, low drug prices and a permissive culture that accepts the use of drugs. None of the strong drug policies of Sweden, as outlined here, are present in Australia, so, like Europe, we continue to suffer high drug usage.

In Canberra, the House of Representatives’ standing committee on family and human services is looking at the impact of illicit drugs on families and is due to report before the federal election.

This committee could perform no better service to our nation than study the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime report, Sweden’s Successful Drug Policy: A Review of the Evidence (September 2006) – obtainable at its website www.unodc.org – and use the findings to replace Australia’s failed drug policy with the successful Swedish approach.

With a federal election due later this year, political parties have an opportunity to offer the Australian public a proven strategy to combat illicit drug use.

Source: Article by David Perrin of the Australian Family Association reported in
Drugwatch International 30th April 2009.

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