Prohibitionists love talking about Sweden. You'll hear it mentioned by the likes of Drug Free Australia and MP Alan Tudge. They claim that tough, punitive enforcement of abstinence in Sweden has reduced illicit drug use there. But there's a dark secret - the reality of the situation and what it says about ‘zero tolerance‘ approaches is damning.
Sweden’s often cited success at reducing illicit drug use with ‘zero tolerance’ policies and abstinence hides its ambivalence towards the lives of illicit drug users. In Sweden 48.1 people per million died from illicit drug use in 2013, the most recent year with data available. Compare this to the Netherlands, a country with a strong focus on harm minimisation, where the figure is only 7 deaths per million. Portugal, where drug use is decriminalized, has managed to bring their rate down to just 2.1 per million through a focus on harm reduction. In Sweden, on the other hand, a lack of harm reduction services has led to a surge in cases of Hepatitis C, a significant factor in morbidity for drug users.
Another blemish on the perfect Swedish ‘pin-up’ image that prohibitionists promote is that they can't establish causation between Swedish drug policies and rates of illicit drug use there. Sweden’s low rates of illicit drug use is much more likely to be the result of its well-developed welfare and social policies and its national culture. This is backed up by a recent report by the UK Home Office which found no correlation between 'toughness' of enforcement and rates of illicit drug use. And in fact Sweden’s rates of illicit drug use are actually rising despite no softening in the policies, something that shouldn’t happen if Sweden’s policies were determining drug usage rates.
The puffed up image of Sweden so often put forward to support prohibition is not a real success story. It is a story where the deaths of illicit drug users are ok because 'they shouldn’t be doing it anyway'. In fact, the deaths are just ignored by the people pushing prohibition; they’re treated as meaningless when compared to drug use statistics.
It's crucial that we push back against this. Deaths because of illicit drug use are not ok and not acceptable when we can prevent them. Sweden is no pin-up. It’s cautionary tale of how 'zero tolerance' puts lives in danger.