Sweden Rethinks Zero Tolerance Drug Policy as Cocaine Use Rises

By Bryan Le 04/08/19

Swedish authorities are trying to learn what factors are contributing to the rising rates of use (and overdose), including the way they police.

Sweden flag and police handcuffs. The concept of crime and offenses in the country.
Sweden is finding out just how effective zero tolerance is. Mykhailo Polenok | Dreamstime.com

Officials in Sweden are rethinking their policies as cocaine use, and overdoses, continue to rise despite their hard-line stance on drugs.

According to SVT, Sweden’s national public news broadcasting service, the drug has only grown stronger, more common, and cheaper in the last few years.

Police and customs have seized 300% more cocaine since 2012. Swedish customs reports seizing as much as 485 kg of the stuff. Cocaine was also found to be the cause of death in 20 cases last year, a massive increase from a few years ago with just one reported case.

While such numbers may seem small in relation to other countries, such a significant spike has caused concern in Sweden and a scramble to find out why.

“Cocaine has increased at least four-fold. This indicates that usage has increased,” said Robert Kronstrand, of the Swedish National Board of Forensic Medicine. “Blood samples have improved, which may explain more positive tests, but that's not the reason for the sharp increase.”

Even the police agree that better testing doesn’t account for the sharp rise in cocaine cases. They’ve seen a significant shift in who is dying, and where: past cocaine deaths were associated with social gatherings, but almost all 2018 deaths were at home.

Sweden’s drug policy is being called into question as it is among one of the most hard-line policies in Europe. Police have the authority to urine test anyone they suspect of using drugs, and pretty much no distinction is made between hard and soft drugs. The policy’s aim was to squash all use of drugs.

“Prohibiting both personal use and the possession and sale of drugs in Sweden makes it harder for 'open drug scenes' to arise, i.e. places where drugs are used and sold more or less openly. This is an important element in systematically reducing access to drugs and preventing people from using drugs,” the policy reads.

In a grim sense, the policy succeeded, leading people to use and die in their own homes. It’s a policy that has come under criticism by the United Nations.

Sweden’s laws stand in stark contrast to its neighbor Norway, which is moving towards the decriminalization of all drugs. The intention is to “stop punishing people who struggle, but instead give them help and treatment,” said Nicolas Wilkinson of Norway’s Socialist Labour Party. The end goal is to divert the handling of drug cases away from the justice system to the health care system.

In Sweden, multiple parties in parliament have banded together to take on the problem. This isn’t the first time Sweden has swiftly responded to substance abuse issues, having restricted the sale of hand sanitizer in 2016 after a rash of teenagers showed up in emergency rooms from drinking the alcogels.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter