Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1481 - 1499)




  1481. Good morning and welcome. Thank you very much for coming all the way from Sweden to enlighten us. As you are probably aware, we have been conducting for some months now an inquiry into British drugs policy, and I guess many of the problems we face are similar to the ones that you face, and therefore we are hoping to learn some lessons from the experience of others. We have had witnesses from the Netherlands and also Sweden to tell us about their approach to dealing with illegal drugs, and now we hope to learn from you. Can I start by asking you to outline the general principles of Swedish drug policy very briefly.

  (Mr Löfstedt) I am delighted to be here to present the Swedish drug policy. The main principles are as expressed in the UN Conventions, a balanced approach. We place equal importance on supply and demand and production. We also see supply reduction as part of prevention. We know there is a link between demand and availability of drugs, so one of our goals has been that drugs must be as difficult to get hold of as possible. We are also trying to work on attitudes towards drugs and the use of drugs, so we are trying to avoid seeing drugs as a normal part of society, the more extreme the better. We are also trying to control prevention, but we have a good treatment programme to help drug addicts get rid of their addiction. Those are the main ideas.

  1482. Is the emphasis on treatment or on criminal sanctions? What is the balance between the two?
  (Mr Löfstedt) The criminal sanctions are mainly for trafficking, and drug addicts receive treatment. We try to place equal importance on those two different areas. The best way, of course, is to prevent the use of drugs at all, then we would have no drug addicts. We think it is very important to have good treatment available for drug addicts, but it is also important to reduce the supply of drugs and criminalise trafficking.

  1483. We understand that you have a national action plan.
  (Mr Löfstedt) Yes.

  1484. When was that introduced?
  (Mr Löfstedt) It is going through parliament at the moment. I expect parliament will make a decision during April.

  1485. In what way does it change existing Swedish drug policy?
  (Mr Löfstedt) There is no particular change in the main direction. I have provided you with a summary from the Swedish Drugs Commission, which stated that the policy in itself is a good policy, but more efforts are needed in its implementation, which is what the action plan will address. We also have a national drug coordinator. He is not taking responsibility away from any authority or municipality, but his work is to support and to be an engine in the system. I had hoped he would be able to come today, but unfortunately that was not possible.

  1486. Your Commission examined drugs policy for some time.
  (Mr Löfstedt) Yes.

  1487. What conclusions did that come to that were different from how you had been conducting policy before that? What changes did it recommend?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Talking about the policy in general, they did not propose any changes in the direction of policy; it was more practical solutions. The Commission stated that there was a difference between the oral presentation of the policy and the practical implementation. We have a very decentralised system. Prevention and treatment are the responsibility of the municipalities, both as to provision and as to funding, which means there may be differences between municipalities. During the Nineties there was a decrease in effort for drug addicts, both treatment and prevention, for several reasons, one of which is economic—we have the same developments as other countries in Europe—and another was that at the end of the Eighties the number of drug addicts and the prevalence of drug taking among schoolchildren was about 3-4 per cent, which meant the drug problem was not seen on the streets. It was there, of course, but it was not obvious. Politicians are more attracted to spending their money on other problems which are more visible. There are other explanations, of course, but now we are seeing the same development as in many other areas, with new groups of youngsters being attracted by drugs, which is a threat to our society, and we need to improve our implementation of the policy rather than change the policy itself.

  1488. Does Swedish law recognise any difference between the seriousness of different types of drugs?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Not if you look at the law itself, but there is a difference when you come to court. There will be different sentences depending on whether you are dealing in a kilo of heroin or a kilo of cannabis. I am not an expert in this area, so I cannot tell you any more about it, but of course there is a difference. We do not talk about soft drugs and hard drugs. We do not think that cannabis, for instance, should be recognised as a soft drug.

  1489. In terms of selling, there is a difference, as you say. In terms of consuming, is there no difference?
  (Mr Löfstedt) No.

  1490. You have a zero tolerance policy to all types of drugs?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Yes.

  1491. Do you prosecute the consumers?
  (Mr Löfstedt) It is criminal to use drugs. The main purpose of that is to identify people at an early stage, when they are just starting to abuse drugs. They are prosecuted but they are not sent to prison. We use the police to identify young people with drugs problems, the information is given to the social authorities, and they are responsible for investigating the needs of the young person, to see what should be done, which could be anything from nothing to treatment facilities of one kind or another. It is a very individual perspective on each drug user. But at the other end of the scale, it is criminal.

  1492. Are you saying that Swedish law does not distinguish between the harmfulness of the drugs ecstasy or heroin when it comes to dealing with the consumer?
  (Mr Löfstedt) When we are dealing with the drug addict, we try to see what the need of that person is. Everyone who has been working in treatment knows there are differences in dealing with a heroin addict and a cannabis or amphetamine addict. There are similarities too, of course, but when we treat, that is what we try to do when we come to individual drug addicts.

  1493. Could I put it to you that although the Swedish policy is zero tolerance in theory, in practice it is not all that different from the same policies conducted in Switzerland or in Holland.
  (Mr Löfstedt) There are many differences, but also similarities. I think there is a difference with the Dutch policy, for instance. Society, the government and the authorities are involved in drug dealing, so to say. There is a tolerance of cannabis use. To the Swedish Government that would be a strange thing to do, that society or the government or the authorities should be actively involved in promoting or making it easier to use drugs. That is an important point, that we try to make it as difficult as possible to find and to use drugs.

  1494. Over the last 30 years or so have problems with drugs got worse, then better for a while and then worse again?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Yes. The drug problem started in the late Sixties/beginning of the Seventies. Formerly, it was a minor problem, among medical staff, jazz musicians, actors, people like that. During the Seventies and the hippy era we had the same attitudes as we see in some parts of Europe today. They were broadly liberal. We did not think cannabis was so harmful. We also had amphetamine products being prescribed to drug addicts. Things were not as well managed. As a matter of fact, it was not well managed at all. We also saw a huge expansion in the numbers of those addicted to amphetamines. Amphetamine has been the major drug in Sweden ever since then, excluding cannabis. Like other countries, we have a number of drugs where possession of a small amount for personal use would not involve prosecution, but our experience was that the first group to take advantage of that were the drug traffickers, because they never had more than that amount on them and they were never prosecuted. So we saw a rise in prevalence during the Seventies. There was a lot of debate. At the end of the Seventies/beginning of the Eighties we changed to a more restrictive policy, as I tried to explain earlier. In the middle of the Eighties HIV was found among drug users. Luckily, we had a very small number of HIV-positive drug addicts. Rather than just giving clean needles to drug addicts, the Government launched a huge campaign to find every injection drug addict and inform them about HIV, to motivate them for treatment, and there was a lot of testing. In my view, testing is the most important thing, more important than clean needles. The key point is that it is important that drug addicts use clean needles and do not share needles. That is the reason, and I think we succeeded in that. We put in a lot of effort, and we saw the number of drug addicts, especially young people, new recruits, go down. Then during the Nineties the efforts went down a little. We also had a lot of influences from other countries, and we saw a rise in the consumption of drugs. We are now trying to put more effort into the policy again, and hopefully we will turn it round again.

Mr Singh

  1495. You have mentioned various programmes the Government has launched, but in terms of the action plan, what emphasis are you placing on prevention and drug education?
  (Mr Löfstedt) We place great importance on prevention. It is a key part of our policy. A very important part of prevention is, of course, public opinion and attitudes. If normal people do not think drugs are something which is acceptable in society, there will be less risk that young people will test it. There are always small groups that will do it anyway, but young people normally do what their friends are doing, and if your friends are not using drugs, you will not use them either. If all your friends, and even your parents are doing it, then of course, you have a problem.

  1496. Presumably your prevention work extends to schools and education programmes in schools for young people.
  (Mr Löfstedt) Yes. We have a very social perspective on drug policy. We see it mainly as a social problem, more than a medical problem, which also affects our thinking about drug problems. Basically, of course, we talk about what environment and what circumstances we give our young people to grow up in. We also have information, of course, in schools and elsewhere, but also social workers try to get together with youngsters, to find out what is happening, to talk to them and influence them at an early stage. We try very much to work with public opinion and attitudes towards drugs. That is perhaps the most important part.

  1497. In terms of the budget to combat drug use, what proportion would you say goes on prevention and education?
  (Mr Löfstedt) This is very difficult to answer. First of all, we have a decentralised system and there is no collection of data about funding at a national level. Secondly, it is also a problem saying what is prevention and what is not. If we give our youngsters a good school education, that is probably also good drug prevention. There are a lot of problems with definitions and in seeing how much we spend on the policy. I am not able to answer that question.

  1498. We have heard that drug use went up, then declined, and is now on the increase again. What is the prevalence in Sweden of drug abuse generally, and specifically amongst young people?
  (Mr Löfstedt) It is around 10-11 per cent among schoolchildren, 16 year olds. The highest rate we had was in the Seventies, which was around 14 per cent, and the lowest was at the end of the Eighties, around 3-4 per cent. We do not have any really good figures on the prevalence among the population as a whole. A lot of people who were using drugs in the Seventies are still alive, so around 25 per cent maybe 30, but that is a guess.

  1499. How do these figures compare with alcohol misuse?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Alcohol abuse is a bigger problem to society, of course. We have many more alcoholics than drug addicts, obviously.

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