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How likely is it that Sweden would ever legalise cannabis?

a marijuana plant
Sweden has long taken a hard line on drugs. Photo: AP Photo/Richard Vogel
As Germany moves to legalise the sale of cannabis, The Local investigates if the same thing could ever happen in Sweden. 

Cannabis is the most used drug in the European Union. The EU’s latest drug report estimates that around 78.5 million adults have used it at some point in their lives. 

But the recreational use of cannabis is only legal in a few EU countries. Malta became the first EU country to legalise the use and growth of cannabis for recreational purposes at the beginning of December.  

Now Germany’s new centre-left coalition government has agreed to the controlled sale of cannabis for recreational purposes in licensed shops. Personal cannabis use is already legal in Canada, Uruguay, and some parts of the US. Germany would be the largest nation in the world to make the move.

A study by the University of Düsseldorf found that legalising cannabis could bring Germany more than €4.7 billion in additional revenue. Some also argue that it could take power away from criminal gangs. Government regulation could better control the strength and availability of cannabis as well as preventing harmful substances like fentanyl from being added. 

While cannabis-use has been linked to schizophrenia, psychosis and memory loss, it has not been definitively linked to an overdose death. Studies have also found that it can reduce pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea.  

International laws oblige countries to impose criminal penalties for the supply of drugs for non-medical purposes. But last year, the UN reclassified cannabis to recognise its therapeutic uses. And now Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg and The Netherlands (where, despite being associated with liberal drugs policies, supply is illegal but tolerated in some circumstances) are discussing the move toward increased legalisation. 

But will Sweden? 

One of the overarching goals of the Swedish drug strategy is a totally drug-free society. Sweden is where the first World Forum Against Drugs was arranged in 2008. Since 1988 it’s been a criminal offence not only to possess cannabis, but to use it too. 

“We have a long tradition of regarding cannabis as a dangerous drug. The authorities have exaggerated the risks for many years. It is not as dangerous as some say and not as safe as others say,” Bengt Svensson, professor emeritus in social work at Malmö University, told The Local.

The Swedish model doesn’t differentiate between “hard” or “soft” drugs. Cannabis and heroin are both classified as narcotics. Sweden’s drug policy is based on the assumption that all non-medical use of narcotics is abuse. The government only recently allowed the use of medicinal cannabis in special circumstances. 

The state has long held that this punitive approach is responsible for Sweden’s historically low levels of drug use. While 28 percent of adults in Germany have reported using cannabis at some point in their lives, that number is just 17 percent in Sweden. 

But Sweden has the highest proportion of drug-related deaths in the EU. In 2019, 540 people died from an overdose in Sweden, most from opiates.  

While drug use is comparatively low in Sweden, it is increasing. The country is now further away from its goal of being “drug-free” than when the ban on drug use began. According to the Health Ministry, an estimated 29,500 people in Sweden are “problematic drug users”.

Street prices have declined in recent years (a gram of cannabis now costs about €11) and the strength and availability of drugs has increased. Sweden conducts thousands of drug seizures a year, but the vast majority of drug convictions are for possession or use.

As drug use and deaths continue to increase, the Public Health Authority has called for an inquiry into Sweden’s ban on drug use, arguing that they do not know enough about the effects of the legislation. But the government has said no

Health Minister Lena Hallengren has said that she would like to see more effective substance abuse care but does not want to investigate decriminalisation. On SVT’s news programme Aktuellt she said: “I do not want to tell a whole generation of young people that it is OK to use drugs.” 

Earlier this year, three youth branches of Swedish centre-right parties asked the government to consider decriminalising cannabis, encouraging an inquiry into the consequences of the ban. There have been opinion pieces in newspapers calling for decriminalisation, and the government has announced a greater focus on drug policy.

But cannabis reform is far from the top of the political agenda.

“Sweden will be among the last countries in Europe to legalise cannabis. Maybe it’ll happen in 20 or 30 years,” Svensson said. “Legalisation is against everything Sweden has stood for over many years.” 

Svensson thinks decriminalisation will only happen if Sweden’s Nordic neighbours go through with it first. The government and its authorities will then want to evaluate what happens.

So the short answer is no: Sweden won’t be legalising or even decriminalising the use of cannabis any time soon. 

“It’s a long way to go,” said Svensson.


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