Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1500 - 1519)



  1500. Can I quote an observation made by Van Solinge, a criminologist and policy expert at the University of Amsterdam, who says that in terms of the Swedish approach to drug education, it is totally ineffectual. He says, "Teenagers don't believe it and in addition they end up ill informed about drugs that could pose a real danger," and this is because the message that you are giving to young people is that all drugs are the same.
  (Mr Löfstedt) I do not think we are saying all drugs are the same. We are saying all drugs are dangerous and cause harm. Cannabis is not harmless. As far as I know, no serious scientist says cannabis is harmless, neither do any goverments say that. Some countries and scientists say it is less harmful than heroin. I can agree with that, if you are talking about death rates and addiction, but we are talking about the perspective of a national policy, and we do not want cannabis use or abuse in Sweden. We think it is harmful. There are a lot of risks connected with cannabis. Of course, there are toxicological risks, there are social risks, and there are also risks that acceptance of cannabis will be the first step towards acceptance of other drugs. If we get used to drugs in society, the difference between different types of drugs is less than drugs and no drugs. In Sweden in particular there is an acceptance of drugs for medical use to affect our minds or whatever, so there is more of a pill-orientated society, and it is important what message the adult world and society and the authorities send to our youngsters. The problem for us today is that we are saying that cannabis is harmful and we do not want people to use cannabis, but others are saying to our youngsters that it is no big deal and is not as risky as it is said to be. So there is a double message going to our kids, and we are a part of a global society, Europe and the whole world. It is a big threat to us, but we are still trying to avoid cannabis, as we see it as a big problem.

  1501. One startling statistic I have seen is that Sweden has the highest death rate from drug overdose in Europe. I would like to link this to the statement of Ted Goldberg, who teaches at Stockholm University, who says that Swedish policy has failed, and that Swedish policy makers have begun to confront that reality.
  (Mr Löfstedt) It seems high. That is correct. The Swedish Commission did a special study on that. There is one particular problem, and that is statistical. We also count underlying causes of death when we count drug-related death. In other countries they do not. So of course there will be differences if you just count drug addicts when you find them on the street with a needle in the arm, and if you do a lot of autopsies to try to find out the difficulties. That is one reason. I do not think it is at all possible to compare different countries' death rates for drug addiction. You can, of course, see the development in one country. The Commission also looked at cohort studies, where you look at groups of heroin addicts, and found that internationally it seems there is around a 20 per cent higher death risk for heroin addicts than for the normal population. That seems to be the case in more or less every study of that kind. So the conclusion of the Commission was that it is high in Sweden, but probably equal in all countries when you talk about this group of heroin addicts. The European Centre, the EMCDDA, in Lisbon have tried very hard to reach a situation where we would have comparable data on this. That is a key indicator in their work. But we are not there yet.

  1502. Finally, would you accept that Swedish policy towards drugs is out of line with the rest of Europe, maybe apart from the United Kingdom?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Sometimes I feel a little bit lonely in Europe, I must confess. I think there is a development in Europe that worries us, of course. That will create a lot of problems in the future. Still we would like to do what we can to reduce drug-related problems, and we think our policy is logical. We do not have all the scientific proof we would like, but in the absence of that, we think we must be logical and make sense.

Mr Cameron

  1503. Do you think cannabis is a gateway drug that leads people on to hard drugs?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Not in the sense you say. We do not say, "If you have ever tried cannabis once, you will end up as a heroin addict." That is of course not the case. But we think that if you can tolerate or have an interest in drugs, cannabis is the easiest drug to get hold of; it is the most common, which means most people start with cannabis. If you learn that drugs are a good thing and you are used to using them, what is the difference? I am a former social worker, and I think if you are curious about and interested in drugs, you start with cannabis, but if you have smoked cannabis for a while, you also become curious about other drugs. In that sense, it is a gateway to other drugs.

  1504. I was wondering whether you had seen the figures that we have been given from an article, a comparison of Dutch and Swedish drug policy of February 2002 by Dr Raabe, which shows that amongst 14-16 year olds, whereas in the Netherlands the prevalence of cannabis is 28 per cent, in Sweden it is 7 per cent, so they are four times as likely to take cannabis as in Sweden. If you look at heroin use, the figures are virtually identical: 1.3 per cent in the Netherlands and 1 per cent in Sweden. How would you explain that?
  (Mr Löfstedt) I cannot explain it. Once again, we have to be very careful about figures and comparing figures from different countries. I cannot say we have very good figures on the number of heroin addicts in Sweden. We have tried a number of times to do rather ambitious counting studies. The first one was in 1979, when we found around 14,000 hard drug addicts, by which we mean everyday use and all kinds of injection use during the last three months, which means in that group we also found cannabis smokers smoking every day. That is not a very big group, of course, but it is there. In 1991 we had 17,000. That is, of course, a range, a medium figure. We did a study a couple of years ago, all signs saying that there is an increase, and the figures today saying between 20,000-26,000. I do not know exactly how the Dutch do their studies, so I cannot judge their figures, but I am certainly very careful about comparing different countries on the figures we have at the moment.

  1505. Mr Singh asked a question about death rates. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction, which does its best to get the figures right, says death rates in Sweden are seven times as high as the Netherlands. That cannot be a statistical error, can it?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Yes, it can. I do not say they are not doing their best; they are. I am a member of the management board in the Centre, so I normally try to defend its work, but I also know how shaky the figures are. You should be very careful, and I am certainly very careful. Still, I cannot explain. It sounds very strange to me that Sweden should have more heroin addicts than the Netherlands.

  1506. It is not more addicts; it is more people dying, and it is seven times higher. You think that could be just a statistical blip?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Not all of it, but there is still a difference. Even the Centre itself did a study where they tried to compare Dutch and Swedish death rates, and they said there was not such a big difference, but they could not explain all the differences. However, it is not as big as these figures show.


  1507. I think it is suggested that one of the explanations is that post mortems are far more rigorous in Sweden than they are in Holland.
  (Mr Löfstedt) Yes, and we are also rather ambitious when it comes to our reporting system for drug death. There is still a problem, of course. We have a high death rate among heavy drug addicts. We can also see that that group is an ageing group. If you look at the figures, you see that the number of middle aged people dying is higher and higher every year, which also affects the figures.

Mr Prosser

  1508. You have given us quite a clear view of the changes in drug use and the changes in policy over the last 10 or 20 years, but in terms of the last 5-7 years, and bearing in mind some of the issues which Mr Singh and Mr Cameron raised, which have been highlighted in this paper by Jeremy Bransten (DRG222), can you with confidence say that Sweden's drug policy is working now and that it is sustainable for the figure?
  (Mr Löfstedt) I hope I can say that. I can say that there has been luck in the implementation of the policy during the last ten years. We have not been implementing the policy the way it should be implemented. We think that during periods when we have done so we can also see effects on the prevalence of drug use. Now we have discovered the problem, we have the results of the Swedish Commission saying we need to put more effort into implementing the policy in order to succeed, or we will go in the direction we see in other European countries where you say the problem is not possible to solve; we will never have a drug-free society so let us give up. That is strange thinking to us. We think if we have failed, we will try to assess the policy, which was the task of the Commission, and they said there was no sign that we would have made more progress with any other policy. They could see no profit in a drug policy which makes drugs more easily available. On the other hand, we need to do more work on prevention and treatment. Those are the two areas where I think the system has sagged during the last ten years. The control area is much more easy to manage, and it is still going on. The police know what to do and the Customs know what to do. It is a matter of resources, of course, but not major problems. Prevention and treatment are the areas we need to develop during the next four years.

  1509. It is true to say that in other countries people are beginning to feel that we cannot win the war against drugs in the same way as we never actually win the war against crime or sin or whatever, but they then step back and say, "Let us rationalise that war and concentrate our attacks on areas where we could have the greatest effect and provide the greatest benefit." We have had the examples of the Netherlands and other countries where there is a relaxation in terms of cannabis. How much of the past success—if we call it that for the moment—of the Swedish policy is to do with the nature of the country, its small population, its relative isolation, and could you see your zero tolerance policy transferring to other countries in the European Union or the wider world?
  (Mr Löfstedt) I believe our policy is right.

  1510. Right for Sweden?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Yes, and also right, I think, for other countries. When your attitude is that you cannot win the war, you will certainly lose. That will also create new problems in society. My personal reflection is that the importance of the open drugs scene in Europe can be seen, and that in certain areas society has tolerated open use of drugs. These open drug scenes attract a great number of drug addicts and drug dealers. There are huge social problems in those areas. We are also seeing the development of the liberalisation movement, which started in those areas. We are now seeing more and more effort in Europe in those areas, not so much for taking care of drug addicts in a humane way, as they started. It is more and more directed towards making peace between drug addicts and their neighbours. If that development continues—I do not say it will, but if—and society loses control of that, it will cause a lot of problems both for the drug addicts and also for the surrounding society. What is new in the action plan is a clear goal for Swedish society to avoid open drug scenes. That is a very important part of a comprehensive policy.

  1511. If you take this almost absolute attitude towards all drugs, would it not be fair and rational to widen that to nicotine and alcohol?
  (Mr Löfstedt) If you ask me personally, I agree, but I am not sure that my Government would put that to parliament. It is, of course, a political issue. I do not see the real point. If we are to avoid any kind of addiction problem we should, of course, ban alcohol. That is my personal view. I do not speak for the Government. It is a political impossibility. What we are trying to avoid is a similar situation with drugs, that the tolerance of society becomes so high that it will be impossible to control narcotic drugs. That is one of the problems we will see with this tolerance policy, of course. We are very much afraid of that.

  1512. Finally, do you not think it would be worth easing up on the war against cannabis if we knew we could win the war against crack cocaine and heroin?
  (Mr Löfstedt) First of all, we are not talking about a war against drugs; we are talking about reducing the drug problem. I know how the Dutch think. "It is impossible to prevent young people from using drugs, so let us give them easy access to cannabis," which is a less harmful drug, as they see it, and from that, to create a separate market. I can see the logic in it, but I am not so sure that it will work in practice. If I were a drug dealer, I would certainly look for new customers for my heroin trafficking, and I would certainly go to a coffee shop to try and find new customers. I have not seen any study from the Netherlands on how it works in practice, what the effects on society will be of high prevalence of cannabis use, what the effects will be for individuals, for schools, and so on, but also whether the separate market works in practice. I do not know, and I have not seen any study on it either. I cannot decide. I think our policy is that the easiest way, we think, is to reduce all kinds of drugs. We think that is much more effective and easier than to try to separate out different kinds of drugs and say one is more acceptable than another. Basically, according to the Dutch thinking, they cannot stop young people from experimenting, but if we accept cannabis, what will stop them from experimenting with other types of drugs on the other side of the border of what is acceptable? That is another problem with this kind of strategy.


  1513. Going back to alcohol for a moment, when I visited Sweden 30 years ago—and I do not want to make too much of this because it was a long time ago—I noticed two things. One, that alcohol was strongly discouraged, prices were extremely high, it was difficult to buy and so forth, and two, that among young people there was a very high alcohol problem. Is that still the case?
  (Mr Löfstedt) Attitudes towards alcohol have changed during the last 30 years. The traditional drinking habit was to drink at the weekend and not during the week. We are now seeing a more European way of drinking, drinking during the week as well. On the other hand, we are also seeing problems with binge drinking in traditionally wine drinking countries such as Spain, Italy and so on since we joined the European Union. Because we have more or less the same view of alcohol as of drugs, we are trying to reduce total consumption, and we are also trying to stop young people from drinking to excess and so on.

  1514. My question was: has that been successful?
  (Mr Löfstedt) I think it has. There is a European study, the ISPARD study—I do not know if you are familiar with that—which talks about the school survey. The ISPARD study is a school survey covering most countries in Europe. We can see that, when it comes to alcohol, and even drugs, there is a belt with Denmark, UK and Ireland at the top, according to that study, and Sweden a little below that. The point is that, in a way, that has been successful. It is much more difficult to work with alcohol attitudes than drug attitudes. We have also changed our roles lately, in accordance with European Union rules. There is a change going on. Also, alcohol consumption has risen in the last few years. There is probably some connection between our alcohol policy and at least the consumption of alcohol.

  1515. Are you saying now that you do not have the same problem you had 30 years ago with young people in regard to alcohol?
  (Mr Löfstedt) I think we have more problems, but I am not sure about exactly 30 years ago. If we compare the period at the end of the Eighties with now, we have more problems with drinking and drugs today than we had ten years ago. Also, there is a connection between alcohol and narcotic drugs. Binge drinking and drug taking are linked, in a way. When we talk about drug prevention, that would, of course, include alcohol prevention. In many ways we are trying to deal with them similarly.

Mrs Dean

  1516. Turning to the supply of drugs, what emphasis is placed on attempting to stop the supply of illegal drugs? I wonder if you could give us any idea of the proportion of expenditure applied in that way?
  (Mr Löfstedt) I am afraid that it is very difficult to say anything about expenditure. There is the same problem as for prevention. It is difficult to say how much time the police spend on drug crimes and other crimes. Sometimes these are linked, and the same applies to Customs. I do not have any figures. I could try to find out when I return to my office. I will send you any figures I obtain.

  1517. That would be very useful. It would be useful to have some comparison, particularly perhaps with Customs, which might be more possible because it would be a nationwide expenditure, whereas policing, do I take it, in Sweden would be a local expenditure?
  (Mr Löfstedt) The police service is run by the Government but the police authorities are independent. It is also done at a local level.

  1518. If you have any figures, that would be useful.
  (Mr Löfstedt) I will do my best.

  1519. Leaving aside expenditure, how important is attempting to stop supply to the overall strategy?
  (Mr Löfstedt) One-third, I should say; we have control, prevention and treatment, and they are equally important. It is not either/or but both. If you talk about control and supply reduction and demand reduction, they go hand-in-hand. It is of equal importance to use both. You cannot rely on attitudes and demand for prevention activities. If the drugs are coming into the country and are openly sold, that is very difficult. On the other hand, you cannot avoid drugs coming into the country. It is impossible to do that. If no one wants the drugs, there is no problem about drugs coming in. If the drugs are coming in, there will be a demand. You need to do both.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 May 2002