Sweden, Drug Use in

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Sweden is roughly the size of Californiaor twice that of the United Kingdom. Sweden's capital city, Stockholm, has a population of about 1.3 million, and the country as a whole has some 8.8 million inhabitants. The first well-documented example of drug abuse in Sweden arose during the 1940s, when the technique of injecting Amphetamine began to spread among criminal elements and bohemians in Stockholm. This form of intravenous (IV) drug abuse quickly spread to other major towns and cities and also to the neighboring countries of Finland, Norway, and Denmark. In 1944, central nervous system (CNS) stimulants were subjected to the same strict prescription control regulations as narcotic drugs in general. In Sweden, CNS stimulants were formally scheduled as narcotics in 1958. The classification of CNS stimulants as psychotropic substances in the international convention of 1971 was largely a result of Sweden's efforts.

Marijuana (Cannabis leaves), declared an illicit drug in Sweden in 1930, enjoyed its first popularity around 1954, when the habit of smoking a "joint" was started by American jazz musicians who were performing in Sweden. Hashish (Cannabis resin) was introduced in the early 1960s and became popular among young people as the habit of smoking "pot" (marijuana) emerged along with the youth rebellion. In the 1990s, the domestic growing of Cannabis plants started on a small scale.

The intravenous use of heroin stems from the mid-1970s, and this mode of drug abuse quickly attracted attention from the news media when several overdose deaths were reported. Cocaine was introduced into Sweden in the late 1970s, but on a small scale.


In Sweden, the term narcotic drugs refers to all pharmaceutical substances controlled under the provisions of the Narcotic Drugs Act (1968) and listed on the Narcotic Drug Schedules issued by the Swedish Medical Products Agency. These schedules contain all internationally controlled substances and some additional substances, such as Khat (leaves and branches from Catha edulis ). The use of Schedule I drugs (Cannabis, LSD, Heroin, MDMA, khat, etc.) is prohibited, even for medical purposes.

Narcotic offenses in Sweden fall into three classes:

  1. Petty offenses involving possession of small amounts of the drug punishable with a fine or imprisonment for a maximum of six months.
  2. Narcotic offenses, which might entail selling ("pushing") drugs on the streets, carry a maximum of three years imprisonment.
  3. Grave (serious) narcotic offenses, such as the import of large amounts of illicit drugs or the production and sale of narcotics. These offenses are punishable by imprisonment for two to ten years.

Compulsory (coercive) treatment of drug abusers is allowable under the 1988 law for Treatment of Alcoholics and Drug Misusers. Young offenders may be subjected to compulsory treatment under the Care of Young Persons Act of 1990. The decision to invoke this treatment for young drug abusers is made by the county administrative courts. Methadone Maintenance treatment for opiate addicts, using very strict admission criteria, is currently available at three university hospital clinicsat Stockholm, Uppsala, and Malmö-Lund.

Doping compounds, such as Anabolic Steroids, are regulated under the Doping Compounds Act of 1992. These substances cannot be imported, produced, traded, or possessed without special permits; however, use of anabolic steroids is not a punishable offense at the present time.


Since the 1970s, hashish has been the most widespread of the illicit drugs used in Sweden; it is often considered the starting point, or gateway, into abuse of other drugs. During the screening of job applicants in 1986, as many as 4 percent had traces of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in their urine. An estimated 50,000 people regularly smoke hashish in Sweden as of the mid-1990s. A study conducted by UNO (Utredningen om narkotika-missbrukets omfattning, or Commission on the Extent of Drug Abuse) in 1979 revealed somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 severe drug abusers, or tung missbrukare, that is, users who take drugs either on a daily basis or intravenously, exclusive of frequency. A similar study in 1992 found this number had increased to between 14,000 and 20,000.

Amphetamine, which is relatively easily obtained throughout the country, is the most popular drug of abuse for intravenous use; about 10,000 people are currently using this CNS stimulant. Injection of heroin seems to be mainly concentrated in the southern and central metropolitan areas, where some 2,000 to 3,000 are known to indulge in this form of drug abuse. The abuse of cocaine is primarily seen within jetset circles in the major cities. The smoking of Crack-cocaine is uncommon in Sweden. Hallucinogens (such as LSD and Ecstasy) are used to some extent by adolescents who follow the "rave" culture. Plant hallucinogens such as Psilocybin are rarely encountered, as are Phencyclidine (PCP), "ice" (crystallized Methamphetamine) and phentanyl (e.g., fentanyl, sufentanil) opioids. Solvent (inhalant) abuse is on the rise in Sweden, with 10 percent of 16-year-old boys and 6 percent of 16-year-old girls reporting usage in 1999. Those who use this type of product for the purpose of intoxication can be treated under the Care of Young Persons Act or the Care of Alcoholics, Drug Abusers and Abusers of Volatile Solvents (Special Provisions) Act.

Increased immigration into Sweden during the 1980s brought the development of new subpopulations of drug users, with use patterns derived from their home drug cultures. These included the smoking of opium and heroin, which is common to the Middle East, or the chewing of khat from East Africa. The relaxing of border controls with the Eastern bloc led to new smuggling routes for drugs into Swedenhashish from Russia and amphetamine from Poland.

According to figures obtained from the Stockholm Remand Prisons, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection rates in the early 1990s were approximately 30 percent among IV abusers of heroin and 5 percent among IV abusers of amphetamine. About 600 individuals are apprehended each year in Sweden on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs. The most common drug encountered in people suspected of driving under the influence of narcotics is amphetamine, followed by Cannabis and then various Sedative-Hypnotic prescription drugs belonging to the Benzodiazepine family.

Annual studies of drug use by school children (aged 16) and military conscripts (aged 18) have been conducted in Sweden for some time by CAN, the Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs. In 1998, CAN reported that 9 percent of 16-year-old boys and 6 percent of 16-year-old girls had tried drugs, a number roughly double that reported in 1991. Among the military conscripts, 16 percent reported having experimented with drugs at least once, up from 6 percent in 1991. Two-thirds of those who reported having tried drugs had used only cannabis, with amphetamine following as the second most-tried drug.


Sweden has experienced dramatic shifts in public policy concerning the control of illicit drugs. In 1965, after a turbulent media campaign, the medical authorities were obliged to allow certain doctors to prescribe what were illicit drugs to registered addicts for their personal use, as part of the so-called legal prescription experiment. Over a two-year period, about 4 million doses of amphetamine and 600,000 doses of morphine had been distributed to a total of only 150 addicts. The project rapidly became unmanageable; it was stopped as the IV drug habit began to spread widely and several fatal overdoses were reported. During the final twelve months of the project, the prevalence of IV drug use among the arrestee population in Stockholm had doubled.

In 1969, a nationwide police offensive against all sorts of drug-related crime brought about a dramatic decrease in drug abuse in Sweden. The tendency among public prosecutors to dismiss petty drug offenses during the 1970s led to an escalation in drug abuse once again. Since 1980, all drug offenses have been either referred to the courts for trial or, if the suspects plead guilty to petty offenses, they are fined directly. In the late 1980s, the police began a new strategy against drug abuse, by focusing more attention on all kinds of drug activity on the streetswith the aim of decreasing the demand for drugs.

The fight against drug abuse in Sweden grew progressively stricter between 1983 and 1993. In 1988, the taking of illicit drugs was made a punishable offense. Since July 1, 1993, the police have been allowed to order chemical analyses of body fluids for evidence that a suspect has been taking illicit drugs. The primary goal of Swedish drug policy is to establish and maintain a narcotics-free Sweden. Measures employed in this effort include information campaigns (prevention), strict border controls to minimize smuggling, mandatory treatment programs for offenders, street-level interventions, and legal restrictions on sale, use, and production of drugs. Sweden's drug policy is often held up as model for other European nations, but has recently come under attack by those alarmed by the steady increase in drug use despite these strict controls.

(See also: Amphetamine Epidemics ; Britain, Drug Use In ; Drug Testing and Analysis ; Italy, Drug Use in ; Netherlands, Drug Use in the )


Bejerot, N. (1975). Drug abuse and drug policy. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, Supplement 256.

Bejerot, N. (1970). Addiction and society. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas.

Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs (CAN). (1999). Trends in alcohol and drug abuse in Sweden, Report 99. Stockholm: CAN.

Swedish National Crime Prevention Board. (1990). Current Swedish legislation on narcotics and psychotropic substances, 2. Stockholm: Allmänna Förlaget.

Swedish National Police Board. (1992). Narcotic drugs, laws, facts, arguments. Stockholm: Allmänna Förlaget.

Jonas Hartelius

A. W. Jones

Revised by Sarah Knox